First Generation to College Success Story - Richland County Foundation

First Generation to College Success Story

May 3, 2022

Local Graduate Now a Successful Walmart Executive

Billy Link Jr. graduated from Mansfield Senior High School in 1997 and is now Senior Director of Operations for Walmart’s East Business Unit. As a first-generation college student, he received scholarships to attend Ohio State University and graduated with two degrees, BS in Biology, and a BA in Psychology.

Q: What were the obstacles you had to overcome as a first-generation college student?

A: Overcoming the unknown was the biggest thing for me. For example, in a random chat with one of my high school guidance counselors after taking the ACT she asked me how many colleges had I applied to?

At that moment I had applied to exactly zero. She told me I was so far behind, and that I should have already applied to my top 10 schools and narrowed my choices based on which schools offered the most financial aid.

I had no perspective in this space. None of my family had ever been to college. I explained this to the counselor. She said someone guided me in the right direction because my test scores were great, and I was in all the honors classes. Unfortunately, no one guided me on the path to college.

My parents were amazing at pushing me and supporting me with the vision they had for my life. But they did not know what they did not know. Things changed after that day, and with the help of many, we took immediate course corrections to realign my path.

The next biggest challenge was the college application fees. I did not come from money, and this was not easy on my family. I remember my dad working all the overtime he could get so we could pay for the fees and go on college visits. My dad was an amazing man. I am where I am today because of him and my mom.

I want to call out a memory that is burned into my soul. I was in maybe the 7th or 8th grade. It was midnight, and my dad awoke me from bed and took me downstairs. He had just got home after working a double shift. He was covered in dirt and grime from the steel mill in Mansfield where he worked. He sat me down at the kitchen table and said son look at me. He laid out it hands, covered in calluses, and said this is not the life I want for you. The steel mill has provided a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food for every meal. But I want more for you and your family. I want you to go to college. I said dad, I know we have talked about me going to college many times. He said this is not a moment where we are just talking, when I am working in that mill on OT shifts, I am doing it so we can help send you to college. He said, I know if you get a degree, your life will open up to things bigger and better than we can ever imagine. He said I followed my dad and, your mom’s dad into that steel mill because I did not know what else to do. It has been a great job, but it is not what I want for your life. He made me promise I would go to college and be the first in the family to earn a degree.

Q: Did someone at Mansfield Senior High School help you overcome barriers?

A: Once I knew what to ask, and where I needed help, absolutely! Dick and Ann Kay were amazing supporters. Dick was the first in his family to go to college and he was my physics teacher. Ann was my English teacher and the school newspaper advisor. Scott Jones was my golf coach and Richard Baker was my Latin teacher and Academic Challenge Coach.

Also, my Boy Scout Troop in Mansfield, Troop 104 (now defunct) was there to help and guide me. I was an Eagle Scout with their support. Some of the leaders were Mr. McGinty, Mr. Etzwiler, and Mr. Wappner. Local entrepreneur Jim Oberlin, owner of Oberlin Properties in Mansfield, was an amazing support person. He was a youth leader at my church.

 What would you say to encourage potential first-generation college students to pursue a degree?

You are not alone! The thing is, I felt alone, but I really was not alone. I just had to learn who to ask. The guidance counselors, teachers, and even other students were clearly better prepared for the steps ahead.

You cannot be afraid to ask for support. It is hard to do everything on your own, so speak up. Put it out on social media what you aspire to be, and what you seek to do, and let the universe help connect you with other individuals who want to help!

Another easy thing you can do is simply research colleges and the steps to prepare. I wish I would have had this when I was in high school. The internet was in its Infancy, and we did not have it at home until I was in college. 


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