Aneliya Barnes: from a high school graduating class of 26 to a campus of more than 10,000
by Josh Kisner
Aneilya Barnes, Ph.D., resonates with first-generation college students. The CCU history professor was one of three students in her high school graduating class, and the first in her family to attend college.
Barnes is from Western Grove, Ark., in the Ozark Mountains. Her rural hometown has a population of less than 400, and it is uncommon for anyone to attend college. Barnes said the town has little opportunity, especially for women, so she decided the only way she could have the future she yearned for was by going to college. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arkansas Tech University, Barnes attended the University of Arkansas to earn a Ph.D. in history. The first history course she took in college piqued her interest in the field.
“I realized I could study anything humans had ever done, meaning I could always find something new and exciting to study,” said Barnes. “I enjoyed cultivating skills that a historian must have, including the ability to think critically and write analytically from evidence.”
Barnes never imagined the possibility of teaching at a college until she earned her undergraduate degree.
“I had no idea what it meant to even get a Ph.D.,” said Barnes. “I only decided to pursue my Ph.D. after traveling abroad my senior year in college. It completely changed my world view and my future goals.”
Barnes’ father was a farmer and carpenter, and her mother worked in a factory, so she had no background in the teaching profession. College was made possible for her through scholarships; her family’s financial background made it difficult to pay for school. Coming to CCU in 2007 was a big leap of faith, and she said people back home often do not understand why someone would leave their town to go to college or start a career.
“I was happy to get the job straight out of graduate school, because CCU was doing so many exciting new things,” said Barnes. “I believed it was a place that I could be a part of real change and important new initiatives, and I am happy to say that, that has been the case during my entire career here at CCU.”
Barnes is the Clark Chair in the Department of History. The two-year history research position allows Barnes to research the Christianization of ancient Rome and the roles of women in the early church. She teaches upper-level courses such as Early Christianity, Imperial Rome, and The Early Islamic World.
Several new initiatives at CCU have been developed from Barnes’ ideas, such as recognizing first-generation college students. As the chair of National First-Generation College student programming at CCU, she has a firsthand understanding of the struggles students can face.
In 2016, Barnes was inspired to write a proposal for the creation of First-Generation College Student Day after attending a panel hosted by Lisa Winters, assistant professor of sociology. Winters received a grant to research first-generation college students on CCU’s campus. Barnes attended Winters’ panel with nine other CCU faculty and staff members to talk about their experiences as first-generation college students and the path they took to get where they are today.
“There was not a dry eye on that panel,” said Barnes. “I had never been involved with something that powerful in my life. People in the audience were emotional just from the panel sharing how isolating it can feel to be a first-generation student.”
This was the first time she realized how isolated she had felt as a college student, and she was inspired to help first-generation college students in their journey.
“Feeling isolated was a valid feeling, but it also was not,” said Barnes. “There were so many people around me sharing the same experience. If we can break down those walls and share our experiences, it can help us not have such a feeling of isolation.”
Barnes wrote a proposal for student achievement funding in 2017 as the coordinator of academic initiatives for the Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts. She was approached by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Student Affairs, and Auxiliary Services to talk to the executive committee of student development to help make first-generation programming more accessible.
“Last year, we met as a lead committee and met with campus leaders of student affairs to understand what first-generation college students need,” said Barnes. “We wanted to find immediate ways that we could start serving them.”
A number of different departments on campus partnered with Barnes to start the inaugural celebration of first-generation college students at CCU. National First-Generation College Student Day is on Nov. 8, but events are taking place during the beginning of November through Nov. 8.
The celebration started with an interest and informational meeting for CCU First on Oct. 17, where students learned more about what it means to be a first-generation college student. CCU First is a club that is open to all students, but particularly students who are defined as first-generation college students. This club teaches students different resources they can use around campus and shows them they have support on campus. According to Barnes, continuing generation college students are also welcome to join the club because they can provide valuable insight and support to the other students.
“We want students to know that everything on this campus is for them,” said Barnes. “This space is for them as much as it is for anyone.”
On Thursday, Nov. 7, first-generation college students will have the chance to celebrate in Brooks Stadium on the Pepsi Patio during CCU’s football game. There will be free food and T-shirts, and recognition during the game. Offices around campus will be recognizing students in a number of ways on Nov. 8.
“Offices around campus are making it visible how they are celebrating First-Generation College Student Day,” said Barnes. “Some are giving out stickers, putting up banners, and wearing their First-Generation College Student Day T-shirts.”
The Edwards College is hosting an event the morning of Nov. 8 called Doughnuts with the Dean. Students will enjoy free doughnuts while mingling with other members in the CCU community who are first-generation college students. Faculty, staff, and students are encouraged to wear their First-Generation College Student Day T-shirts to be visible to students.
After the initial year of first-generation college student programming, Barnes is encouraged to continue developing initiatives and implement new ways to recognize what students need in order to succeed. Making resources on campus more visible to these students is a main objective of this program. She wants to break down the walls first-generation college students feel to share their experiences so they do not feel isolated and alone while in college.
“The most amazing part has been the degree in which so many people on campus have so willingly partnered on this,” said Barnes. “I was worried they wouldn’t hear how important this is, but it has been phenomenal the amount of support that has poured out.”