Topeka, Kan. - Hard work and advocating for others are traits that run deep in the family roots of Janice Watkins. Achieving a college education, however, had not taken hold until the Topeka native faced a tough situation and enrolled at Washburn University.

     “Upon graduating high school in 2000, I dreamed of joining the Peace Corps and becoming a traveling journalist. I had enrolled in a private university and moved to Chicago, where I quickly discovered that I was pregnant,” said Watkins. “The car ride back to Kansas was quiet, and I knew I had difficult choices to make. At the age of 18 and the birth of my sweet son, Gabriel, I knew that I needed to pursue a degree.”

     Watkins enrolled at Washburn, becoming the first member of her family to attend college or a first- generation college student. Students are first-generation students if neither of their parents or guardians completed a bachelor’s degree regardless of siblings and other relatives. According to self-reported data, 47% of current undergraduate students at Washburn identify as first-generation.

     With a steady support system of friends and family, Watkins graduated Summa Cum Laude in just four years while working as many as three jobs. She also found support through the Washburn Women’s Alliance which provided scholarships as well as inspiration to a young, single parent who was striving to make a better life for herself and her son.

     After working for Kansas Legal Services and now CEO of Topeka Habitat for Humanity, Watkins has rediscovered the passion instilled by her family for serving the community. She is successfully growing programs and developing neighborhood revitalization initiatives to provide safe, decent and affordable housing. She points to her education and the support she received at Washburn as the building blocks to her success.

     Her story is one of many behind the celebration of National First-Generation Day, Nov. 8. Washburn University is marking the entire week with special events such as a coffee chat, a fundraiser for We Are F1rst at Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, a First-Generation campus photo, an on-campus social and trivia night. Special scholarships are also part of the festivities to encourage first-generation students on their journey. For Watkins, the destination has been well worth the trip.

     A few years after Watkins’ graduation, her mom had the courage to go back to school and earn a social work degree from Washburn and now serves the community, too.

     “Watching her walk across the stage at her graduation was one of the happiest moments of my life, knowing that she was inspired by my ability to earn my degree while being a non-traditional, single parent,” said Watkins.

     Today, many of Watkins’ family members are Washburn graduates and using their degrees to affect change and serve others. She now serves as president of the Washburn Women’s Alliance and encourages single parents to continue to pursue their education. Watkins teaches her children, as well, that academics will serve them well in life.

     “My advice for others is to find a good support system or to be that for someone else. We cannot thrive without a solid foundation, so offering your expertise, skills, a listening ear and a caring heart to another can be the driving force that someone needs to change their life or the lives of others,” Watkins said.

     Learn more about first-generation college students and support services at Washburn University by visiting


Note: Janice Watkins is the featured speaker at Wake Up with Washburn at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16 in Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center. The Wake Up with Washburn breakfast lecture series is co-sponsored by the Washburn University Alumni Association and Foundation and the Washburn University School of Business. It provides a forum for alumni lecturers to enlighten the audience about their career, accomplishments and how Washburn positively impacted them while they were students.

For further information, contact:
Lori Hutchinson
Interim Director of Public Relations
Telephone: (785) 670-1711
Cell: (785) 224-6212
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