Riley Hoerner: His mother's cancer spurs a decision

CHC first-generation students succeed despite the barriers they face in higher education

Some first-generation college students grew up without means. Some are students of color and struggle to find role models who look like them on campus. Still others are children of immigrants who came to the United States to improve their lives but face hidden barriers. And there are many others at Clark Honors College, the UO and beyond whose parents didn’t go to college – the textbook definition of what it means to be “first-gen.” 

Regardless, first-gen students share a common thread: They face myriad challenges when they arrive that many of their peers don’t have to contend with as they pursue college degrees. 

Identifying supportive faculty members, staying on track with coursework, getting advice about the right classes, and pushing away feelings of not belonging are part of their every-day struggle. From the time they start thinking about college to the time they graduate, first-gen students navigate university life through a combination of savviness, luck, fear, intelligence and instinct. 

These stories are about some of the first-gen students who call Clark Honors College home. 

By David Austin, Clark Honors College Communications

Riley Hoerner sitting on a bench in front of a brick façade.

Year in school: Sophomore 

Major: Business Administration 

Goal: To attend law school 

It was during the height of the pandemic and a few months prior to making a decision about where to apply for college when my mom sat me and my brothers down in the living room. She had gone in for surgery twice before and had a biopsy. So, we were all kind of expecting the news. 

“The doctor called about my tumor,” she said at the time. “It is cancerous.” She paused, and then handed us a yellow sticky note with some long scientific name written on it in faded blue ink. I remember thinking it looked like another language. I knew the word that stood out at the end of it: lymphoma. 

It felt like the air was sucked out of the room. Cancer was something they talked about on Grey’s Anatomy, not something that should impact me. It seemed like a cruel joke. The same woman who had supported us was now vulnerable to a disease I had only seen on TV. I realized then that where I would apply to college would be limited to one place – the University of Oregon. I didn’t even consider a backup plan. I had to be close to her and my brothers in case anything more happened. 

My mom, who works in financial management, graduated high school but never had the opportunity to attend any sort of college. She doesn’t bring it up very often these days, but I know she wishes she had the chance to continue her education. She’s said how not having a college degree has limited her in her career, how making it to her current role was a feat, and rising to another level in her work would be nearly impossible. 

I know she is proud of me for going to college, and it’s clear she only wants what is best for her children. “I think all parents want better for their children than they had,” she has said to me. “They want their children to have an easier life, an easier career, and more time with their family. I want for my kids what I was never able to give them.”  

That's something I carry with me as a first-generation college student. Whether I’m in a Clark Honors College class, studying in my apartment, or hanging out with my friends. I’m not only driven by my own aspirations, but by my need to make my mother proud. Navigating college as a first-gen student so I can finish with a degree in a career path I’m passionate about can be challenging. It means taking risks, being on top of everything, and seeking out the resources I need to be successful. It hasn’t always been like that for me. 

When I got into the Honors College, I remember my confidence level was through the roof. I had just arrived at a family friend's home to babysit their kids when I got the email from CHC. They all got excited for me since the parents both had gone to UO and knew what a big deal it was to my family. It was real, I remember thinking at the time. I was really going to college. 

My fears set in when I arrived. In my first year, I followed the practice of trying to be as quiet as possible in my classes. I never really felt like I belonged in this new academic setting, like raising my hand to answer a question might alert everyone that my admission to the college was a mistake. I didn’t know what I was doing. 

I felt intimidated emailing my professors. I didn’t know how my meal plan worked. I didn’t know how my student loans worked, or if I even filled out the forms correctly. I couldn’t go to my parents because they’d never been in this situation before. I remembered thinking that if I was going to get through this, I needed to develop some tenacity, like my mom did when raising me and my brothers. She and my dad taught us to never give up. Realistically, I knew the only option was to turn my fear and confusion into action. 

As a second-year student, I am as committed as ever to getting my degree. I have learned my limitations and work to minimize them. I know I am not going to be the most knowledgeable person in the room, but I have figured out how to locate the resources out there that can help me succeed. There are entire divisions within the university whose sole purpose is to assist students like me. I don’t hesitate now at asking questions and speaking up when I need help. 

Being a first-gen student is not something I chose to be. Despite my parents not going to college, I owe a majority of my success to them. Challenges still pop up; it wouldn’t be true to life at college if they didn’t. Right now, I’m still trying to figure out how to declare my major and minors, and learn what requirements I need. I know it’s not something I have to do alone. I have a counselor to help me think through my decisions. Paying for college is another thing that is a struggle for many first-gen students. That’s why I have two student jobs, so I can rest a little easier. I understand what’s going on more now, and when I don’t, I know who to go to with questions. 

When I become a parent, this level of perspective and insight will help me give my own children the luxury that I didn’t have going in. I will try to help their friends and peers, too, especially those whose parents could not attend college. As a first-gen student, helping others find a way will always be part of what I do for my community. 

—By Riley Hoerner, Clark Honors College Communications
—Photo by Alex Rodriguez, Clark Honors College Communications


See more stories about first-gen students connected to Clark Honors College.