A first-generation college graduate, Jesse Cetz now finds himself guiding and encouraging students on a similar path.

Sometimes a last-minute decision can be life-changing.

As a senior at Douglas High School in 2015, Jesse Cetz didn’t initially plan to attend an information session on the Act Six scholarship. He’d heard about it the summer before but hadn’t given it much consideration  it was one of many he’d learned about when he was taking a summer college prep course from his high school counselor. So instead, minutes before the presentation started, he was still in the weight room. 

But in a moment of sudden realization, he asked his football coach if he could use the class time to attend the presentation instead. His coach agreed, and Cetz hurried to take a seat in the info session. 

“For some reason, I thought the speaker was looking right at me,” Cetz says, so he introduced himself after the session. Soon after, he decided to apply. Both his football coach and high school counselor added a letter of recommendation to his application, and his dad – a single father raising Cetz and his brother – took him to Goodwill to pick out a suit for the competition. 

“God must’ve really moved,” Cetz says, because a few months later he learned he was one of seven Act Six recipients selected for the cadre that year, which meant he had a full-tuition scholarship to attend George Fox University. “It was huge for my family,” Cetz says. “Before that, I could never afford to go to a school like George Fox.” 

Act Six did far more than benefit him financially. “We were able to get poured into about how we can develop as leaders, how we can step into servant leadership, and how we can help build and give back to the communities that we call home,” Cetz says.

That gave him confidence to triple-major in marketing, management and entrepreneurship, all while being the first in his family to graduate college.

“I didn’t really know what being a first-gen college student meant until I was getting near graduation,” Cetz says. “During my senior year in undergrad I began to gain the vocabulary to express my journey as a first generation college student.”

Partway through Cetz’s academic journey at George Fox, the Intercultural Resource Center opened for students. His first interaction at the IRC was with then-director of intercultural life Jenny Elsey, when he visited her office before a job interview scheduled later that day.

“In the first couple minutes of meeting her, she coached me on the type of clothes typically worn for an interview, and I quickly ran back to my dorm room to change,” recalls Cetz, who was originally planning to wear street clothes. “That was the start of our mentor and mentee relationship. Dr. Elsey has continued to speak words of wisdom into my life even now as an alumni.” 

Jesse Cetz talking to others and smiling

After graduating in 2021, Cetz remained at George Fox to serve as the first-generation student success coordinator and, later, the Liberation Scholars Program project manager, using both roles to help students who are on similar paths that he was on in college.  

As the Liberation Scholars project manager, Cetz organizes the logistics for the summer program, where a small cohort of 12 to 14 high school students “get a Costco sample of college,” as he puts it, by coming to campus for two weeks and attending honors seminars. Then, twice a month throughout the academic year, the cohort meets and discusses college applications, scholarship opportunities and other preparations for their time beyond high school. 

“We make sure that they get to explore and figure out what they want to do, but we get to walk with them and help,” Cetz says. “It’s been a blast. I enjoy connecting with the high schoolers and seeing what kind of futures they want.”

Plus, as the first-generation student success coordinator, Cetz says he’s “someone that a student can talk with, and we can talk about real things”  whether that’s balancing a student’s family responsibilities and scholarly growth, discovering who they are, or finding their gifts from God.

“My aim is for students to discover how the Lord has uniquely created them to be, and then dive into how they have been created,” he says. “The Lord gives each of us unique gifts and abilities, and we get to decide who is glorified with those gifts and abilities. So when I meet students, a lot of it is saying, ‘Oh, have you noticed that you’re gifted in this way?’” 

“If somebody is a first-gen college student and they graduate, they did not just make a change in their individual life, but they are changing the dynamic of the generations that come after them,” Cetz says. “That is why being a first-gen grad is so phenomenal.” 

But it takes a lot of bravery and grit. 

“That’s one of the big things that pulled me into this role, is being able to walk with students that are trying to figure it all out,” Cetz says. “It’s a huge journey to take.” 

Cetz hopes that, by walking alongside students on their journeys, they will feel supported and encouraged every step of the way. 

Share this post: