RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – A group of high school kids from across Arkansas are working hard to break barriers by becoming the first person in their families to go to college.

The students are part of Arkansas Tech University’s First Generation Institute, a program designed to help them break generational cycles and overcome certain challenges in order to make their hopes for the future a reality through higher education.

Students are brought together to get a preview of college life. During the two-day institute, the high school students learn about academic opportunities, get a first-hand look at life as a college student and learn about ways to help pay for their education.

Program participant Matthew Hamilton would be the first in his family to graduate high school and go to college.

“My mom dropped out, I think her junior year,” Hamilton said. “And a bunch of my uncles, they started hanging around on the streets, dropped out, didn’t make it through.”

The oldest of four siblings, he said he pushes himself to do more.

“I was the one that kind of parented them growing up, so I kind of had to develop and mature a lot faster than other people my age,” Hamilton explained.

The group is mentored by current ATU students who’ve walked in the same shoes, like Little Rock native Lesly Mendez, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants.

“I honor that, and you know, it’s like my parents tell me, ‘You have to do better, ‘” Mendez said. “’We came here to give you and your brother a better opportunity, so you better take advantage of that.’”

The first-generation college student plans to go to law school, and she had some advice for every child wanting to become the first in their family.

“Life isn’t easy, and I know it’s going to throw you curve balls, but you have to keep pushing,” Mendez said.

As for Hamilton, the aspiring mechanical engineer wants to keep pushing for his little brothers and sisters who are watching.

“I know I can do it, so I know they can do it, as well.”