When Osarugue Otebele was selected as the 2021 valedictorian for Spelman College, it came as a total surprise.
"I was shocked," said the English major with a passion for film. "I didn't go into Spelman thinking I'd be the valedictorian."
But the now Spelman alumna did just that. Not only did she graduate with top honors, she did so a year early. During her time at Spelman, Osarugue was part of the Ford First Gen initiative—an innovative program aimed at improving graduation rates among first-generation college students.
Ford Fund, in collaboration with Spelman College in Atlanta, launched the program in the beginning of the 2018-19 academic school year. The program pairs first-generation college students in their first year with juniors—also first-generation students—who serve as peer mentors.
Like many Ford First Gen students, Osarugue found the college experience to be as challenging as it was rewarding. But having a community of support made a difference.
"I genuinely enjoyed being in the First Gen program," Osarugue said. "It felt like having a separate community to go to ask questions that you may not have felt confident about asking in other spaces. And I met really good friends in the program."
Osarugue heard about the program the summer before starting Spelman. The school sent an email with details about the mentorship opportunities and learning community that Ford First Gen offers.
Students attend monthly seminars focused on networking, career development and building healthy relationships—all designed to help them succeed throughout their four years in college. They meet with industry professionals for insight into today's workplace, work with Spelman faculty and have the opportunity to complete Ford-sponsored summer internships.
"Just knowing you have people going through college with the same background and same experiences was really great," she said.
Upon completion of her sophomore year, Osarugue became a mentor her junior year, gaining additional and valuable leadership experience as she helped guide a new cohort of incoming first-generation first-year students.
Balancing academics and extracurricular activities in the age of COVID provided additional challenges. Osarugue said she was able to thrive by putting systems in place—something she recommends for all students.
"Having a planner and system to organize is very important," she added. "I really had to be on top of planning my days out with classes being on Zoom. I literally planned every hour of my day."
Thankfully, Spelman's class of 2021 commencement was held in-person in May. Osarugue said it felt great to be back on campus after a virtual year.
"None of us wanted to have a virtual commencement," she said. "(During my speech) I was able to share with my class final words about staying together and sisterhood. It was more emotional because of the year we had not being able to see each other. It was a great moment and I really enjoyed it."
So what's next for Osarugue after an amazing undergraduate experience?
She's headed to the University of California Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in film and media studies. She aspires to teach cinema, particularly African cinema, and produce and direct films adapted from novels.