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Dr. Jerod Stapleton, Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Health, Behavior & Society department at the University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health, is from a small city called Gallipolis which is located on the Ohio River in southeastern Ohio and borders the West Virginia Appalachia area.  

Growing up, Jerod remembers two distinct things about Gallipolis – there being a large factory at the time that employed both his parents, and it is the hometown of Bob Evans, the founder of Bob Evans Restaurants. 

Family Influence 

Neither of Jerod’s parents had the opportunity to go to college, yet they were able to achieve career growth and success in a variety of positions.

“From an early age, they worked hard and were successful in climbing the career ladder and finding new opportunities,” says Jerod. “They encouraged me and assumed that I was going to college, which was very inspirational.” 

Jerod’s grandfather, who also did not go to college, worked at the nearby power plant and modeled life-long learning through reading.  

“I always saw people working hard around me,” says Jerod. “My mom, for instance, did what she had to do in getting more on-the job training and always thinking about a better future for us.” 

Common Challenges for First-Gen

Jerod’s parents and grandparents instilled the importance of having a “growth mentality” and in higher education. As a result, Jerod eventually received both his BS in Psychology from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and PhD in Biobehavioral health at Penn State University, but the road in getting there was not easy. 

“I did not have a lot of context for professional settings and situations, which can be a challenge and a blessing," says Jerod. “For instance, my first airplane ride was at 23-years old when I went to Penn State to explore their PhD program. I remember showing up and having to figure out how to navigate an airport for the first time. This was an additional stress on top of getting myself prepared for graduate school interviews.  

On the other hand, there is something about not having that background that is freeing and provides an excitement about each new opportunity that is presented.” 

Jerod recalls having to learn and process so many new experiences in real-time.  

“There’s so many moving parts when you don’t have the full context,” says Jerod. “I didn’t have anyone close that had a college experience to help guide me.” 

Like many first-generation experiences, everything is new, and one must be self-reliant and figure things out. 

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Jerod. “I did not understand all the complexities of navigating a college decision or education, but I stayed patient and worked to figure it out. I eventually learned the importance of asking for help and relying on the experiences of those around me to make this process easier. 

Mentors are life’s manual 

Jerod found his support system through having a plan, time management, and good mentors like Dr. Joel Hillhouse, who was a professor of Psychology at ETSU when Jerod was a undergraduate student. Jerod identified Dr. Hillhouse as a productive and respected faculty member and volunteered to work in his research lab. Jerod recalls his strategy of “hitching his wagon” to successful people like Joel. 

“Because the academic and professional world is so unique compared to the day-to-day experiences of most first-generation students, my advice is to find mentors and be vocal about getting guidance in managing your time and learn how to plan and execute your work,” says Jerod. “Give yourself permission to ask for help and learn how to ask for that help. You could read a manual when putting something together, but many things in life do not come with a manual. Mentors can be your life’s manual.” 

“College is all about possibilities and opening new doors, "adds Jerod. “The advantages of a college education are an exploration of your full potential. Give it a chance. You have the aptitude and the attitude. Higher education is a different path forward, and learning is exciting and rewarding.” 

Finally, Jerod advises all students (including first-generation) to: 

  • Learn to become a planner and focus on time management and organization 
  • Learn how to budget  
  • Get comfortable with networking  
  • Challenge yourself with learning complex tasks 
  • Find mentors 
  • Ask for help, particularly when you are stuck or have a problem 
  • Always talk to your professors, like Jerod. 

First-Generation Student Services at UK  

The University of Kentucky has a dedicated team, services, and programming for our first-generation population, which can be found at