Published: Nov. 17, 2022 By
Kassie Brothers

This article is part of a series that explores the stories of ME first-generation students and the faculty and staff who also began their academic journeys as the first in their families

Human Resources and Operations Manager Kassie Van Pelt grew up with a working mom and two brothers in a small town in Colorado, where there weren’t many opportunities for a good education or employment. But even before she entered high school, Kassie set her sights higher than the possibilities she saw around her. 

“My brothers always had construction jobs or manual labor jobs back in our small town,” said Kassie. “But I didn't feel like I could do something like that. I wanted to get a better education and do something better with my life.”

Once her brothers were established on their own, Kassie urged her mom to move with her to a place that offered more educational opportunities. Although her mom had one of the few good jobs in town, she was supportive.

“It was a big push for both of us,” said Kassie of their relocation to Denver, where she enrolled in a better-quality high school. “It was overwhelming to be around so many people in a new place.”

The push out of her comfort zone paid off. After high school, Kassie enrolled at CU Boulder as a sociology major.

But the transition to higher education as a first-generation student was not without its challenges to overcome.

“I had to move myself because my mom has always been a working mom. She couldn't take off work to move me. And God knows I could barely understand how to use a bus,” she laughed.  

Like the bus system, Kassie had to figure out a lot of college life on her own. She didn’t have a parent or family member who has gone through the college experience to turn to with questions or for advice.

“My first year, I navigated classes and college by myself because I didn't know who to ask for help,” said Kassie.

“I also always had at least one job, if not multiple jobs, throughout my time at school, which made it difficult to have a normal social life like other students,” she said.

One of the jobs she had was as a student assistant in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, which gave her a sense of home.

Despite the long hours of studying and working, Kassie was determined to graduate and be the first one of her family to have a college degree. She admits a little healthy sibling rivalry helped her stay motivated too.

“A lot of it is competition with my brothers,” said Kassie. “I'm the youngest of us three. Whenever I could be the first to do something, that's what I wanted to do.”

In 2010, Kassie's determination paid off. She graduated with a sociology degree and became the first in her family to receive a college education.

After working in the Graduation Admissions team as an Administrative Assistant for a year at CU Boulder, Kassie returned to the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering, where she enjoys fostering the unique talents and characteristics of the faculty and staff in the department.

Thinking of the unique challenges she faced as a student, Kassie offered some advice for current and future first-generation students. “Utilize your resources,” she said. “Don’t be afraid because you’re different. And know that you have a unique perspective to bring to university life.”