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December Graduate First in Her Family to Earn a Degree

By Betsy Hnath

Gabrielle Cunningham had never seen Old Dominion University in person before committing to it for her undergraduate degree. She chose the school based on recommendations, the internet and brochures to help cement her choice.

Her first steps on campus came on Cunningham's first day of classes.

Four-and-a-half years later, she'll be the first in her family to earn an bachelor's degree when she graduates Dec. 16.

Cunningham, a Richmond native, was looking for a mix of diversity and top-notch facilities when she picked Old Dominion over schools like James Madison and Howard universities.

"ODU had everything," she said. "It had the combination I was looking for. Plus, the price was affordable."

Solely responsible for her tuition, Cunningham sought ways to help subsidize the cost of her education.

She participated in the federal work-study program and Old Dominion's Learn and Earn Advantage Program (LEAP). She also held two part-time jobs.

Funding her own education required Cunningham to take out student loans, but she maintained a positive perspective.

"I thought, 'If I'm paying for my education at Old Dominion anyway, I might as well take advantage of everything I can while I'm here.' I got really involved, and it's kept me grounded," she said. "I may not have the best G.P.A., but I'm definitely prepared for life."

During her years as a student, Cunningham served as a director of marketing for the residence hall association, director of Homecoming and director of legislative affairs and diversity for the Student Government Association -- a role that incorporated working with Old Dominion President John R. Broderick.

"My connection with President Broderick started through the Student Government. Now, any time I see him and the First Lady, we have conversations concerning life and what's next for me," she said. "The last time we spoke, it was about what side of the stage I should sit on so I can be sure to see him when I accept my degree."

Much of her family will be in attendance on graduation day, and the significance of the event isn't lost on Cunningham, who majored in marketing and minored in management.

"I bring a lot of opportunity to them,; they're so proud of me," she said. "I have a little brother, and he sees me as a role model. He's still in high school, but he has a job, and now he wants to go to college too. We get to set a new trend."

As much as she's enjoyed her time at ODU, Cunningham is excited to take another big, first step following graduation: pursuing a master's degree in higher education. She's deciding between three programs.

"I did an internship at the University of Tennessee, with their living and learning communities and loved it, so I want to go on to graduate school to learn more about the field," Cunningham said. "I think working with students, encouraging diversity and helping people get the most out of their education are things I'm good at."

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