By following her passions and pursuing higher education, Messersmith opened doors to new possibilities and found a career path that’s not only highly fulfilling, but also unlike anything she had ever seen in her childhood.

Messersmith grew up in rural Nebraska approximately 15 miles away from the village of Farnam, which at the time had a population of only 100. Known as “The Little Town That Can,” Farnam might not have had a grocery store, but it provided Messersmith with unique experiences that have shaped her into who she is today.

“I got to do everything I ever wanted in school. I got to do all the sports, and I got to do all the brainiac things,” Messersmith said. “I also feel that growing up as a farm kid gave me a lot of the strengths that I have as an adult. I grew up knowing that I put in a hard day’s work for the sake of the hard day’s work. And that for me, in practice in adulthood, has been one of the biggest reasons for life’s satisfaction. I do things for the internal satisfaction of knowing I’m doing a good job.”

Graduating first in her high school class, Messersmith always enjoyed school. While no family members in previous generations attended college, Messersmith's older brother did, which reinforced that college was something she wanted to pursue. But when she thought about college, she wasn't exaclty sure where her higher education journey would take her. 

When she looked at the people in her rural community who had attended college, they had careers as doctors or nurses. If it was not a career in the medical profession, it was most likely a career as a teacher or a farmer. Messersmith respected these professions but wasn’t sure that any aligned with her future goals.

“Growing up in an agricultural-based community in rural Nebraska, I saw farmers, teachers, and doctors and nurses,” Messersmith said. “From a young age, I thought I was probably going to be a doctor because that was the thing you did if you didn’t want to be a farmer.” 

While her family was extremely supportive in her decision to attend college, Messersmith knew she was on her own financially. When looking at places to pursue her undergraduate degree, she had a lot of options; however, she knew had to choose a college that she could afford and one that could give her the degree she wanted.

“I knew that being a farm kid, my parents weren’t going to be able to help me pay much for school,” Messersmith said. “I knew that going to school was on me and there was no implied expectation that they were going to pay or contribute to that. That was the choice I was making.”

Messersmith attended the University of Nebraska-Kearney for her undergraduate degree. Then, she decided to continue on to get her Ph.D. in human sciences, specifically in audiology, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Now, as the associate dean for academics in the College of Arts & Sciences and a professor in the Department of Communications Sciences & Disorders, Messersmith has a unique opportunity to help put first-generation students like herself on the path toward success.

Messersmith has first-hand experience of the hidden curriculum of college and what it feels like to navigate the college experience alone. She understands that often first-generation students lack the self-confidence to put themselves out there and get the most out of their college experiences. Messersmith said these students often find themselves in the back of classrooms, just following along rather than making their presence known.

“Most of the time, that means we’re not hearing all the voices that we need to be hearing as a campus. That means we are not allowing students to fulfill their full potential,” Messersmith said.

“We’ll never get everyone to start from the same level, but if we can at least help students not be behind because they had a different life experience, I think that helps all of us.”

In her role as a professor, Messersmith acknowledges that her experience as a first-generation student has had a meaningful impact on her teaching style. When she teaches, Messersmith said she focuses on the expected outcome, rather than focusing on the path students take to reach that outcome.

“When I teach classes, I purposefully don’t put a lot of boundaries in place because I don’t know students’ backgrounds or what they’re bringing into my class,” Messersmith said. “Just because it makes sense to do something a certain way to me, it might make sense to them through a different means because of their life experiences.

“By removing those boundaries, I try to help my students navigate and explore class in a way that resonates with them and how they can frame a pathway forward that makes sense to them,” she added.

As an administrator, Messersmith has a much more structured role in supporting first-generation students. She’s involved with the Retention and Persistence Committee on campus, where she helps analyze data on how students are progressing and works toward coming up with the tools and processes to help student progress through college.  

Last year, she helped lead university leaders through the strategic planning process within the College of Arts & Sciences, where she was able to incorporate student-centered initiatives, including one of her greatest passions – mentoring students.

“Mentoring is really helping a student to become the best version of themselves,” Messersmith said. “I’m really thankful and honored that I have the opportunity to work on that particular goal within the college. Over the next few years, I hope to put something in place so that we, as a campus, can be really intentional with our student mentoring and help them realize their goals and progress.”  

Working on a college campus allows Messersmith to acknowledge first-generation students like herself and recognize the importance of their experiences in creating a welcoming campus community.

“As first-generation students, we tend to think we’re the only ones, but in reality, first-generation students are the majority of students on many college campuses,” Messersmith said. “As the demographics of our country, state and community change, I think first-generation students, who know what it feels like to be an outsider and have a different life experience, can really help create a community that’s more welcoming.”

As a first-generation student, Messersmith is proud of where she is today.

“Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who was a college professor, and now I’m not only a professor, but I’m in university administration,” she said. “To me, that’s a great accomplishment. Knowing that I took time in life to grow and reflect on where I wanted to be without having a direct role model of what that looked like. I was able to find something that really fulfilled me and is unlike anything that I saw growing up.”

Read more first-generation student stories.

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