AAC&U News, September 2017
Perspectives

For First-Generation Students, "It's All About the Support that You Have"

First-generation college students often face academic, financial, and cultural barriers that go beyond the normal difficulties of being a first-year college student.

According to a 2011 report from the Higher Education Research Institute, 50 percent of first-generation students at four-year institutions graduate within six years, compared to 64 percent of students whose parents attended college.

In a recent op-ed in Forbes, Troy Markowitz identifies these barriers as opportunity, awareness, and achievement gaps that prevent first-generation students from finding parity with their peers. These barriers, which could be as simple as not knowing how to apply for financial aid, "have helped to increase inequality, decrease access to critical information, and often reduce a student's chance of realizing successful outcomes during their university educations and into their professional lives.”

Overall, he says, these challenges inhibit the American Dream. “If we do not make a concerted effort to solve this trinity of challenges, upward mobility will become a thing of the past. This great Land of Opportunity will cede its place in history to permanent inequality,” Markowitz writes.

The solution, he says, lies in providing support through advising, mentoring, and interventions to provide the information, support, and sense of belonging that other students get from family members with college experience.

As several other articles show, some of the most important help in bridging these gaps comes from a support network—often former first-generation students—who may be classmates, professors, or extended family members.

Michael Lyle of the Las Vegas Sun examines the stories of several first-generation students at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

“Institutional resources make a huge difference. But the stories of first-generation students have untold power to push the next generation to meet and maybe even raise the bar. It might be through a volunteer speaking engagement, or across the kitchen table,” Lyle writes.

Current or prior students can also offer perspectives to other students on campus about the challenges of being a first-generation student. On National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, recent college graduate Tyler Lattimore detailed the pressure he felt to prove himself to peers, the struggle of having a stricter financial situation than other students, and the delicate balance of classes, jobs, and friends.

“There were times where I heard my classmates say they don't even know what financial aid is,” Lattimore said. “For me, it was a struggle between OK, do I pretend? Or am I honest with my financial situation? And I found that by being honest you create an opportunity to educate people—people who haven't thought about money in the same way that we have.”

At the University of Texas–Austin, a group of mostly first-generation students from the small border town of Roma, Texas, put together an informal social support network for new students.  

“The group holds potlucks featuring food from home,” writes Lillian Mongeau in the Hechinger Report. “They get each other jobs. They help the newest Roma-grads-cum-UT-freshmen find housing, the laundromat, and free food on campus. They share textbooks and help each other with homework. They carpool home for the holidays. They ask each other: How do you sign up for health insurance? Can you explain this financial aid form? Where is the registrar’s office? When someone is sick, they cook him dinner. When someone is lonely, they talk. When someone is struggling, they encourage her to reach out to resources on campus they know can help.”

To make these resources and support networks more obvious, the University of California (UC) system has a new strategy to connect students with professors who were once first-generation students themselves. According to Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed, faculty on campuses will wear t-shirts and buttons to identify themselves as first-generation graduates. Approximately eight hundred faculty members “are expected to wear First-Gen Faculty shirts and share their experiences with their students across nine undergraduate campuses during the first week of classes this fall.”

In the Atlantic, Emily Deruy detailed the experience of Greg Dendy, a first-generation student from Washington, DC, as he applied for and matriculated into college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Based on his experience, even a few caring professors can make all the difference.

“Plenty of universities leave it up to students to show up to class or not, to take advantage of office hours or not, to succeed or wash out,” Deruy wrote. Dendy’s professors “would text him a few minutes before class to make sure he was on his way. One teacher tracked him down at his job after he missed class to work.”

“It’s like, okay, you really do care about me,” Dendy said. “It’s all about the support that you have.”

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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