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Perseverance, Curiosity Fuels Big Dreams for First-Generation MA Grad

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Jordyn Reiland

Content and Communications Manager

Jordyn Reiland

Renissa Gannie will graduate in June with a master’s degree in English and Literary Arts

Feature  • Profile  •
Renissa Gannie

Only 10 years ago Renissa Gannie was cleaning houses near the University of Denver — she remembers it well. As she made the same trek back and forth past campus, she would often remark to herself, ‘I’m going to go there one day.’

Originally from Guyana, South America, Gannie came to the United States when she was 17 years old. She spent some time “living in the shadows,” as she called it, but eventually became a U.S. citizen and earned her associate degree from Horry Georgetown Technical College in South Carolina.

“To survive [life’s challenges], what I did was read books that validated me and helped give me this drive, this passion to eventually one day fulfill my dreams,” Gannie said.

She fondly recalls reading the Harry Potter series as well as “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series and her go to classics of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, along with Sabaa Tahir’s “An Ember in the Ashes” series.

During her time in community college, several of her professors pushed her to pursue further education and she had her own dreams of teaching. With a 4.0 GPA she was told, “You’re a big fish in a small pond here, you belong somewhere else” and she was encouraged to “aim higher.”’

But there was only one school she wanted to attend; it was the same university in Denver that she recalled passing by so many times before.

Whether it was to quiet the naysayers, to follow her dreams, or maybe a little bit of both, she applied and was accepted to DU.

Gannie, a first-generation and non-traditional student, earned her bachelor’s degree in history and English with a concentration in literary studies in 2021 and is now just weeks away from graduating again from DU — this time with a master’s degree in English and Literary Arts.

Her next step is to get a PhD in Victorian literature from Indiana University Bloomington, and she is hoping to apply to teach at a four-year college thereafter.

“My dream is coming closer and closer because all I’ve ever wanted to do is teach, and I’m hoping that it will come through,” Gannie said.

One of the first classes Gannie took at DU was called “Prostitute of the Pen,” and the subject matter reinforced her love for 18th Century women writers.

“I’ve met some amazing professors who have shaped my way of thinking and have helped me open up and broaden my horizon and my mind,” Gannie said.

Those professors include Billy J. Stratton, Tayana Hardin, Juli Parrish, Eric Gould, Kristy Ulibarri, Carol Helstosky and Elizabeth Escobedo.

Hardin, who informally serves as one of Gannie’s professional mentors, described her work ethic and intellectual curiosity as both admirable and commendable.

“Her literary research interests allow her to bring her undergraduate training in history into conversation with her MA training in literary studies, which will allow her to make compelling contributions to her fields,” Hardin said.

Reflecting on Gannie’s journey at DU, Stratton, her thesis advisor, noted that “seeing Renissa achieve what she has over the last four years has been truly amazing. She is a shining example of what someone can achieve with hard work and dedication, driven by a love of knowledge. But what has been most memorable is that she has done all of this with a sense of positivity and witty humor that is truly inspiring.”

Gannie spent much of her time working with the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (CAHSS) First-Generation College Student Program as its program coordinator. She is also a writing consultant for the University Writing Program.

Being a first-gen student herself, Gannie knows well how impactful programs such as these can be for students who may not have parents or other adult figures in their lives who have experienced college education and can help them navigate the experience.

“She has said more than once that she wants to pay back the generosity that she herself has benefitted from. She wants to be an agent for positive change for our students,” said Chad Leahy, chair of the Department of Spanish Language, Literature & Cultural Studies and director of the CAHSS first-gen program.

Leahy said Gannie is a “tireless defender and champion” of students in the program.

“She is always available and always willing to help them, day or night. She knows people's names and she knows people's stories. She serves as an inspiring mentor who is never afraid to tell it like it is, even if sometimes the message is difficult to hear. She cares deeply about them,” Leahy added.

Through support, direction, and connections with faculty and peer mentors, students in the CAHSS first-gen program learn how to navigate academic and social barriers to improve their college and career success. Program resources include finding paid student internships and connecting students to faculty and alumni mentors.

Gannie admitted that she still struggles with imposter syndrome but stresses to her mentees — and herself — the importance of balance and recognizing that they do belong.

“Never give up no matter what. Things are always going to come up, things are always going to happen ... Just keep going, just one foot in front of the other. You can do it,” Gannie said. 

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