Erin Benner, angelicjewel photography

‘My life has done a 180’
How one first-generation student went from dropping out of high school to embracing the U of M

Kaitlin McKinley said she was done with education when she dropped out of high school at 16. “I got to a point where I really didn’t feel supported in school. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to. I didn’t want to keep pushing through an experience where I was really miserable,” she says.

At 17, she earned her GED and began working in retail. She also did a stint at a sanctuary for rescued chickens.

But she knew she wanted more. “I wasn’t happy with my retail jobs, and I wasn’t happy with the person I was,” she recalls. McKinley had thought about going back to school, “but I didn’t want to admit I wanted to go to college,” she says.

As the first in her family to continue beyond high school, she wasn’t sure where to begin. She knew little about student loans or scholarships. “I didn’t even know the difference between a community college and a university,” she says.

McKinley enrolled in Normandale Community College in 2019 at age 28. She credits her coach with the TRIO program, which assists students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with helping her navigate college and find a community.  (She eventually worked as a TRIO peer mentor.) “Had I gone it alone, it would have been a lot harder.”

After earning an associate’s degree, she wanted to go for her bachelor’s degree and applied to a few schools. “But I knew in my heart the U was where I wanted to be.”

McKinley, who started at the U last fall, says making the switch from a community college to a large university was a culture shock, and she admits her first semester was pretty tough. “I feel like every day I learn something new about the U,” she says.

She also began working as a peer coach with the Center for Academic Planning and Exploration, talking to students who are trying to decide on a major. McKinley credits her supervisor, who directed her to the Inter-College Program in the U’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies to create her own major that combines communication studies and family social science, for being a mentor.

McKinley says she has taken her parents to campus to give them a taste of University of Minnesota life. She and her mom took a tour before she started classes last year. She and her dad attended a Gopher football game.

She says at first it was hard for them to understand why she wanted to continue her education. “I had such a poor track record with school, but after they saw how hard I work and how dedicated I am, they’ve been massively supportive,” she says.

McKinley’s goal is to work with nontraditional students like herself who need extra support. “My life has done a 180,” she says. “If I could put a fraction of that back out into the world, I would be happy.”

She credits scholarships with lessening her debt so she can eventually go on to graduate school.

“I’m really grateful to be at the U,” she says. “It’s been an amazing experience, and it’s become a place where I feel at home.”

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