From real-life university lectures to visits with CEOs to even TikTok dance parties in Colorado State University’s residence halls, 43 young people had the opportunity to see firsthand what defines a great college experience … and a vast majority of them hadn’t even graduated high school yet.

It was all part of the inaugural First Generation Business Summit from July 25-29, which brought together high school students and recent graduates from Colorado and beyond. Many of them are from underserved or rural communities, and all of them will be the first person in their families to attend college.

“I’ve had multiple students tell me that they didn’t think college was in their fate, but after attending the Summit, they realized they really wanted to go,” said David Ferree, an undergraduate recruitment coordinator for the CSU College of Business who managed the event.

During the Summit, students were assigned teams and tasked with coming up with case studies for businesses they believe would create a better world. They presented their ideas to a panel of judges on the last day, and the winners received CSU scholarships of up to $2,500 funded by the Green and Gold Foundation and First Bank.

While the scholarships are contingent on whether students attend CSU, this wasn’t the entire mission of the Summit, which will become an annual event.

“We’re a land-grant institution, and if someone who wasn’t planning on it decides to attend college – wherever that is – we did our job this week,” Ferree said.

Here’s a photo story on CSU’s first ever First Generation Business Summit:

Meet some of the students

College in a week

What does it mean to be a first generation student?

It’s hard to quantify, but students tried to describe it in one word on the back of their t-shirts on the first day of the Summit, when they were introduced to the dozens of other fellow teenagers from across the state who would also be taking part in this week-long event.

It’s the same day they also learned they could receive a scholarship for their case study presentations, with the winners receiving $2,500 to attend CSU.

“The first day was a little bit scary for the students and their parents,” said Laura Renn, an undergraduate administrative coordinator for the College of Business. “When we read their applications, we had already fallen in love with the students and their stories, and it was inspiring to hear about their hopes, and know all the barriers they’ve been able to overcome.”

Multiple CSU professors gave the students actual first-year business lectures, showing them what academic life would look like in college.

One of them was Marketing Professor Kelly Martin, who grew up in rural Montana and was able to share her own experiences as a first generation college student.

“In my town, I thought there were more cows than people,” she said. “My college campus was bigger than my hometown by the thousands. That’s kind of why I became a professor: I couldn’t get enough of that college experience.”

Kelly Martin teaches a class at the First Generation Business Summit
Student takes notes at First Generation Business Summit

Throughout the week, the students worked together in their respective teams to prepare their case study presentations. They chose topics ranging from using trash collected from beaches to make art to sustainable makeup to solutions for affordable housing.

Like college itself, these projects meant hours huddled together over laptops in CSU’s Morgan Library (with vending machine snacks, obviously).

But also like college, the First Generation Business Summit wasn’t just studying and lectures. Case in point? The nighttime TikTok dance parties in the students’ residence hall, night of games on the Oval and activities in the Campus Recreation Center.

Engaging with the Fort Collins business community

The First Generation Business Summit didn’t just give students a look at college. It also showed them what was waiting for them after graduation, when they’ll embark on their future careers.

In addition to networking events with local leaders on campus, the students got to go to the Fort Collins community and spend time at four local businesses: the Northern Colorado Latino Chamber of Commerce, New Belgium, Morning Fresh Dairy and Otterbox.

At Otterbox, CEO Jim Parke outlined his experiences as a first generation college student, and how it gave him a future he never dreamed of.

Otterbox CEO speaks to students

“Don’t let the inner voice that says ‘you can’t do it’ talk you out of being great.”

– Jim Parke, Otterbox CEO

Scenes from the New Belgium and Morning Fresh Dairy tours

Photos by Allison Sylte and Laura Renn

The grand finale

Presenting an idea to a group is hard enough, regardless of where you are in your professional career. Presenting to a group of professionals – including College of Business Dean Beth Walker – with a scholarship on the line? That’s even harder, but the students came out in a big way.

“They could’ve been college students the way they presented, not high school juniors,” said Palmer, one of the judges.

The winning team’s presentation pitched an app to help people with mental health. The second place team’s idea was a sustainable makeup brand, and the third place team came up with a concept involving art displays using trash that had been cleaned up from beaches.

The Summit finished off with a farewell luncheon and announcement of the awards. Ferree said students have already been asking him if they can come back again next year.

The goal is for the First Generation Business Summit to get bigger and bigger every summer, giving more high school students at glimpse at what college can be.

“You are it,” Palmer told the students. “You can do this.”

Group photo on the last day of the First Generation Business Summit

About CSU’s College of Business

The College of Business at Colorado State University is focused on using business to create a better world.

As an AACSB-accredited business school, the College is among the top five percent of business colleges worldwide, providing programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. Faculty help students across our top-ranked on-campus and online programs develop the knowledge, skills and values to navigate a rapidly evolving business world and address global challenges with sustainable business solutions. Our students are known for their creativity, work ethic and resilience—resulting in an undergraduate job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA, which has been ranked the No. 1 program in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report for five years running and achieved No. 16 for employability worldwide from QS Quacquarelli Symonds. The College’s Impact MBA is also ranked by Corporate Knights as a Top 20 “Better World MBA” worldwide.