Being the first in your family to go to college can feel lonely at times. Forging a path your own parents didn’t take — they don’t know what it’s like to live in a dorm, chose a major, or face a week of exams — can make students feel overwhelmed and unsupported. Luckily, some groups have studied this struggle and work to help first-generation college students overcome the challenges of transitioning to college life.
Research shows that it helps to remember that others share your experience — and that many first-generation college students have gone on to lead lives of extraordinary accomplishment. For inspiration, here’s a list of people who’ve blazed this trail, including presidents, Supreme Court judges, award-winning artists, world leaders, and billionaires.
Michael Blecker is the executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit organization that provides support and advocacy for U.S. veterans. Blecker, who grew up in foster care, enlisted in the Army after high school and served in Vietnam. He graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and studied law at the New College of California.
Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley was the first African American to be elected mayor of a major American city with a majority white population. His parents were sharecroppers who migrated to Los Angeles from Texas when Bradley was 7. Bradley, who was raised by his mother, excelled in school and graduated from UCLA, where he was a track star. He then attended Southwestern Law School. Bradley was a police officer for 21 years, a two-term city council member, and served five terms as the mayor of LA.
Ursula Burns was the first African American woman to head a Fortune 500 company. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Panama. Burns was raised by her mother in a housing project in New York. She attended New York University and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University. Burns started working at Xerox as a summer intern when she was still in college. She served as CEO from 2009 to 2016 and continues to lead the company as its chairwoman.
President Jimmy Carter grew up in Plains, GA, where his father ran a general store and later purchased a peanut farm. His mother attended a hospital nursing training program and worked as a nurse, but Carter, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and served in the Navy, was the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, was born in Hope, AR. He graduated from Georgetown University, received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and then went on to Yale Law School. Although Clinton’s mother attended nursing school and worked as a nurse-anesthetist, Clinton was the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Viola Davis is an actress on stage and screen. She’s widely known for her roles in The Help and How to Get Away With Murder. In 2017, she received an Academy Award for her role in Fences. Growing up, Davis’ family was so poor that she and her siblings were often hungry. She began acting in high school and earned scholarships to Rhode Island College and Juilliard.
Ron Dellums spent 13 terms and close to 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the mayor of Oakland, CA from 2007 to 2011. Dellums was born in Oakland, where his father worked as a Pullman porter and a longshoreman and his mother worked as a beautician and a government clerk. Dellums attended San Francisco City College, Oakland City College, and San Francisco State University, and he earned his master’s degree in social work from UC Berkeley.
Albert Einstein is the world-renowned physicist who developed the Theory of Relativity. Prior to winning the Nobel Prize for Theoretical Physics in 1922, Einstein lived in Germany and earned a teaching degree from the ETH University in Zurich, Switzerland. Einstein’s father, who ran an electrical equipment company with his brother, didn’t go to college.
Gerald Ford became the 38th President of the United States after Richard Nixon was forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal. Ford’s biological father was a wool trader; he was raised by his mother and stepfather, who was a salesman. Ford attended the University of Michigan and Yale Law School.
Former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank served as a Massachusetts representative from 1981 to 2013. He was the first openly gay member of Congress. Frank’s father ran a truck stop in Jersey City. Frank attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and again as a law student. Frank married his partner, Jim Ready, in 2012.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. , who directs the university’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, is a writer, filmmaker, historian, and critic. He grew up in West Virginia, where his father worked in a paper mill and as a janitor; his mother was a housecleaner. He started college at West Virginia University and graduated from Yale. He then earned a Ph.D at the University of Cambridge in England. Gates was among the first to be awarded a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. She was raised by her parents, immigrants from Russia, in Brooklyn, NY. Even though Ginsburg’s mother was an excellent student, she didn’t have the opportunity to attend college; instead, Ginsburg’s mother had to work to help her brother (Ginsburg’s uncle) go to college. When it was Ginsburg’s turn, she attended Cornell University and Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in a class of 500.
Brian Greene is a theoretical physicist and mathematician who wrote the best-selling books The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos. He’s made ground-breaking discoveries in the area of superstring theory. His father, a composer, was a high school dropout. Greene studied physics at Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he earned his Ph.D. Greene directs Columbia’s Center for Theoretical Physics and is a co-founder of the World Science Festival.
Actor and film producer Samuel Jackson has appeared in many films, including Pulp Fiction and Star Wars. Jackson was raised by his mother, a factory worker, in Chattanooga, TN. He planned to major in marine biology when he went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, but after he joined an acting group for extra credit, he decided to pursue acting instead.
Investor and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone says he is “proudly part of the 1 percent,” and that he “worked like hell” to get there. Langone’s roots are modest: his father was a plumber, his mother a cafeteria worker. He worked his way through Bucknell University, then attended NYU’s Stern Business School at night while working full time during the day. Today, Langone has an estimated net worth of $3 billion.
Civil rights hero and longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis grew up in Alabama, where his parents were sharecroppers. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, TN, where he began participating in and eventually leading civil rights protests, including sit-ins and bus boycotts. Lewis, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was badly beaten by police officers during the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery in 1972. He has served in Congress since 1987.
Civil rights icon and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall grew up in Baltimore, MD, where his father worked as a railroad porter. Marshall attended Lincoln University and Howard University School of Law. As a lawyer, he fought segregation laws and won the historic victory in Brown v. Board of Education. The first African American Supreme Court justice, he was appointed by President Johnson in 1967.
Viet Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, The Sympathizer. His family came to the U.S. as refugees in the 1970s and eventually settled in San Jose, CA, where his parents ran one of the city’s first Vietnamese grocery stores. He earned his bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D in English from UC Berkeley.
Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, grew up in poverty. After the family ranch failed, his father opened a small grocery store and gas station in Whittier, CA. Nixon attended Whittier College and Duke University Law School.
Michelle Obama, the first African-American First Lady, is a lawyer and writer. She grew up in Chicago, where her father worked for the water department and her mother was a homemaker. Obama graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
Colin Powell has a long record of public service. He was Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a four-star general. He was the first African American secretary of state and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica. His father was a shipping clerk, his mother a seamstress. Powell graduated from the City College of New York and earned an MBA from George Washington University.
A U.S. Senator for 30 years, Democrat Harry Reid served as both Majority Leader and Minority Leader before his retirement in 2017. Reid grew up in Searchlight, NV, where his mother was a laundress and his father was a miner, and the family was so poor that they had no indoor bathroom or hot water. Reid graduated from Utah State University and earned a law degree at George Washington University Law School.
Laurie Richer didn’t intend to go into psychiatry. She grew up in Manchester, NH, where her mother was a secretary and her father was a blue-collar worker. She wanted to be a veterinarian, but ended up at the University of Rhode Island’s School of Pharmacy because she was working her way through college and it was the lowest-cost option. In medical school at Philadelphia College, she still had no interest in psychiatry (in fact, she disliked the psychiatry rotations) and was considering obstetrics. But a mentor steered Richer toward psychiatry, and she discovered that she liked emergency room psychiatry. Today, Richer is medical director of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Trauma Recovery Center and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCSF School of Medicine.
Howard Schultz grew Starbucks from a small chain with four stores into the multinational corporation that today seems to be on every corner. As a child, Schultz lived in a housing project in Brooklyn, NY. He attended Northern Michigan University on an athletic scholarship, where he majored in communications. In 2017, Forbes ranked Schultz as the 660th richest person in the U.S. with a net worth of 3 billion dollars.
Ruth Simmons was the first African American woman to head a major college or university when she became president of Smith College in 1995. In another first, Simmons became the first black president of an Ivy League College when she was appointed president of Brown University in 2001. Simmons grew up in Texas, where her father was a sharecropper. She attended Dillard University as an undergraduate and earned her master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard.
Sonia Sotomayor, the third woman and first Hispanic ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, graduated from Princeton University and Yale Law School. Her parents both immigrated to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. Sotomayor was raised in a housing project in the Bronx.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known as “The Iron Lady” because she was a tough, unyielding politician, both as prime minister and as the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. She grew up in Grantham, where her father was a shopkeeper. Thatcher earned a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied science. After, she attended City Law School and entered politics in 1950. Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister in 1979.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was born in Pinpoint, GA. His father, a farmworker, abandoned the family when Thomas was 2. His mother, a domestic worker, struggled to support her three children, who often went hungry. Thomas graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and attended Yale Law School. He was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President George Bush in 1991.
Kenny Troutt is the founder and executive director of the Texas-based long distance phone company, Excel Communications. Troutt grew up poor; his father was a bartender, and his mother was a waitress and school cook. Troutt put himself through college at Southern Illinois University by selling life insurance. According to Forbes, Troutt is worth $1.4 billion.
In his celebrated book, Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance describes growing up in an impoverished family in Middletown, OH and Jackson, KY. When he was a child, his mother used drugs and his father left the family. His grandparents’ home was his refuge. He joined the Marines, which enabled him to go to Ohio State University and then Yale Law School. Vance works at a Silicon Valley investment firm and recently moved back to Ohio to start an organization to fight opioid addiction.
Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts senator and passionate consumer advocate, was born in Oklahoma City, where her father was a maintenance man and her mother worked in the catalog department at Sears. Warren, a state debate champion, won a full scholarship to Georgetown University, but left after two years to marry her high school sweetheart. She finished college at the University of Houston and earned a law degree from Rutgers School of Law.
Award-winning playwright Tennessee Williams wrote masterpieces of the American stage, including A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Raised in Mississippi, he attended several colleges, finally graduating from the University of Iowa. He also studied at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop in New York.
Oprah Winfrey, the celebrated talk show host, television network owner, actress, producer, and philanthropist so well-known that she’s commonly referred to simply as Oprah, grew up in poverty. Her mother, a housemaid, was an unmarried teenager when Oprah was born. In high school, Oprah was an honors student and she earned a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, a historically black college, where she majored in communication.
We plan to keep adding to this list, so please send us the names of other famous firsts we should include.