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First-Gen Student Derek Hodgdon Earns Champlain College Scholarship

Written by
Stephen Mease

December 15, 2022


Derek Hodgdon

Eighteen-year-old Derek Hodgdon grew up in Swanton in a typical Franklin County family. Hard work was expected, college wasn’t, and pretty much everyone assumed that he would go right to work in the metal recycling business that bore his last name.

But while Swanton would always be home, Derek wasn’t convinced it was where he saw his future.

In seventh grade, Derek – along with many of his fellow classmates at Missisquoi Valley Union Middle and High School – started attending college and career workshops presented by VSAC’s Talent Search Program, which aims to get more low- and middle-income students to pursue higher education, especially those students who are “first-gen,” meaning their parents did not receive a four-year college degree.

That was the case for Derek; in fact, his dad didn’t even finish high school. “He stopped going his sophomore year so he could work in the business,” Derek explains. And while his father made it clear that he wanted his two daughters and his youngest son to get the high school diploma he had left on the table, “going to college was above and beyond.”

Derek, however, started to consider the possibility. “It felt like a ticket out of a small town.”

That ticket was punched the day Derek learned he had won the Vermont First Generation Scholarship from Champlain College. The news came, partially, via a text from his mom, reading: “Good job, Bud!” At the same time, his VSAC counselor, Kate Rowland, came to find him in the hallway of MVU, and suggested that he invite his mom to their scheduled meeting later that day.

“When we had our meeting, the expression on Kate’s face was unbelievable. She told us that only a select few get this scholarship. It covered 95% of my tuition,” Derek says.

Derek chose Champlain after visiting several Vermont campuses through tours offered through VSAC. Seeing the schools in person helped him identify which ones would be a good fit. Participating in Talent Search also exposed Derek early on to “all the terms and vocab of college,” and he says it was helpful to have Kate as a guide and a sounding board as he was completing his applications, essays, and scholarship forms. 

The most challenging aspect of the process, Derek recalls, was “figuring out what I wanted to go for. I changed my mind so many times.”

As a tech-savvy kid, Derek once dreamed of going to California and getting a degree in computer science. As he got a bit older, he discovered that it was people, rather than machines, that captured his interest. “When I was 14, I wanted to be a behavioral analyst, and study criminals and the way they think,” he recalls. But as he thought about immersing himself in the darker side of human nature, he decided it was a little much. As he talked more with Kate about career and college options, he says, he realized that his interest in people had a lot of other (and lighter) applications. “So I decided to get a business degree because I feel like you can do a lot with that.”

It's also something Derek already had a lot of exposure to, between the family scrap-metal business and an after-school job at a fast-food restaurant, where he rose quickly and was promoted to management by age 17. “I liked learning the way a business runs, the ins and outs,” he says.

Derek plans to major in business administration at Champlain, where he has really appreciated the “upside-down” curriculum. The approach has students take classes in their major right away, during their freshman year, rather than spending their first couple of years completing general requirements and having to wait until three years in to take the courses they’re most interested in. “I’m taking business classes right now,” he says. “It’s helping me make sure I really want to do it. If I start to second-guess my concentration, I’ll know soon, so I can make a change.”  

The independence of college – being able to make your own choices and taking responsibility for them – are things that Derek has responded well to. “I didn’t love high school,” he admits; by senior year, he was working 40 to 50 hours a week at the restaurant, was taking only one class a day, and was generally ready to move on. “But now, I’m learning the stuff I want to learn, and I’m putting my grades first. You realize when you get to college that nobody will be mad at you if you skip class. But you miss out on your own knowledge.”

Being in Burlington has offered Derek a good mix of familiar friends and new faces. He has several high school friends who go to UVM, he says, and it’s been nice for all of them to build new friendships with each other’s roommates and dormmates. He’s met people from all over the country, from the northeast to the west coast, and even someone from England, which, he says, “is still wild to me.” 

Derek also takes a bit of pride in being able to introduce some of his “big-city” peers to the culture of Franklin County. “I brought one of my friends from Massachusetts back to Swanton, and they were in shock, at how far apart the houses were, and how many cows they saw. And I was just like, ‘yup.’”

“But it’s nice, knowing there’s so much more out there than just Swanton,” he says.

When asked how he might advise a student a year or two behind him at MVU, he pauses for a moment, then responds. “Don’t be afraid to leave Franklin County. And don’t be afraid to change your mind a lot, because you will, many times. Don’t be afraid to explore.”

He’s grateful for the guidance he received from Rowland, VSAC, and the Talent Search program, which connected him with the opportunities to do just that.

“If I hadn’t been in the program, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college,” Derek says. “Realistically, if I hadn’t come to Champlain, I’d probably still be working at the fast-food place.”