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Jim Wilkes using a microphone to speak to listening students.
Former student Jim Wilkes shares his story as a first-generation student that led to him being the president of Texland Petroleum. | Image: Danielle Sullivan, Texas A&M Engineering

On Nov. 8, the Texas A&M University College of Engineering hosted a dinner and celebration in honor of its first-generation students. As of fall 2022, Texas A&M has over 12,000 first-generation students. Over 3,300 of them are in engineering.

To help first-generation students assimilate into college life seamlessly with the help of those who have been in their shoes before, the College of Engineering offers programs like the First-Generation Engineering Students Mentoring Program (FGEn).

“The college offers several support systems for these students through scholarships, our mentoring program and services provided by the Office of Access and Inclusion,” said Dr. Harry Hogan, senior associate dean for academic affairs. “Beyond that, our faculty, staff and industry partners are very committed to supporting this community as well, and we appreciate all the generous support by our donors to the FGEn program.”

Jim Wilkes ’78, president, director and co-owner of Texland Petroleum, was a guest speaker at the dinner celebration. He shared his experiences as a first-generation student and what led him to become a petroleum engineer.

“My parents did not expect to advance their studies beyond a high school diploma,” said Jim. “We were from a small town in southwestern Missouri where very few people had college degrees.”

At 12 years old, Jim left Missouri for Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, he had his first interaction with an engineer: his stepfather, an electrical engineer from New Mexico State University who worked for General Electric.

“We moved to Tulsa, then to Dallas, then to Houston, and this enabled me to attend Spring Woods High School,” said Jim. “It was a great school for two reasons: I met Becky there, and I had a great education that prepared me for success at Texas A&M. We had a counselor that encouraged Becky and me to apply for scholarships in engineering. Then, during my senior year, I received a call from the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M. They offered me a scholarship, and it made choosing engineering easy.”

Jim graduated from Texas A&M in 1978 and received many job offers, as it was a prime time in the oil and gas industry. He credits his degree and mentors for the success that followed him up to this point.

“In my years at Texland, I have been part of a great company with many fine people that have mentored and educated me about how to manage an oil and gas company,” said Jim.

Becky Wilkes speaking at a podium.
Former student Becky Wilkes ‘78 shares her story about life after Aggieland. | Image: Danielle Sullivan, Texas A&M Engineering

Jim reflected on the pride he felt as a first-generation student who, with his wife, began generations of higher education in his family. Becky Wilkes ‘78, former student in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, also spoke at the dinner to reflect on her perspective and the different direction her degree took her. 

“I didn’t expect to be here after my life’s trajectory,” said Becky. “I once read a statement that stuck with me: ‘Every decision you make is a step toward the person you are becoming.’ So many of our decisions seem insignificant when we make them, and if you have goals, you are either moving toward them or away from them. There is no other choice.”

Becky’s parents were both first-generation students who earned their degrees later in life after having children. Seeing her parents work hard and earn their degrees changed the direction of Becky’s life and her family’s.

“All too soon, you will graduate, and you will have to decide where you work and determine which values will make it a reality,” said Becky. “The decision to be where you want to be in the future depends on the choices you make today.” 

After spending some time in the industry, Becky chose to be a stay-at-home mom. She expressed love for her education, being an Aggie and working in the industry for the time she did. She credited her degree for allowing her to master hard concepts and persevere through the challenges she faced. 

Texas A&M’s College of Engineering recognizes the system barriers in higher education that first-generation students face. Transitioning to college is hard, and the FGEn program has significantly impacted students' college careers. Students are encouraged to join, and faculty, staff and students are encouraged to become mentors with the FGEn program.