Decoding College: Schools rise to fill in gaps for first-generation students

first_img “I remember wishing I had someone to ask which classes were best for me to take, how to adjust to life in college, and how to balance schoolwork, social life and sleep,” Soto said.  Soto is one of the roughly 1.5 million first-generation students out of 7.3 million undergraduates attending four-year public and private colleges and universities in the U.S. “First-generation” students are defined by the U.S. Department of Education as students whose primary parent or parents didn’t complete a four-year degree. Definitions vary across institutions, though. Some definitions consider students with a sibling who has graduated to be first-generation, while others only count students who are the first in their immediate family. Some definitions count students attending any higher education institution, while others limit “first-generation” to students attending four-year colleges.  These programs can also provide extra support for completing one’s education, which is crucial given that first-generation students are more likely than their peers to enter college with characteristics that are associated with dropping out. Within 8 years of college enrollment, about 20% of first-generation students completed their bachelor’s degree, compared to 42% of their continuing-generation counterparts, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education. Of those who dropped out, 54% of first-generation students cited financial barriers, compared to 45% of their peers.  At Tompkins Cortland Community College, 33% of students self-identified as first-generation during the 2018-2019 academic year. To assist these students, TC3 created the Vector Network, a peer mentor program not only geared towards first-generation students but also students with socioeconomic disadvantages and students from historically underrepresented groups.  First-generation specific programming at colleges seeks to combat the gaps in knowledge by allowing for an entry point and providing milestones of success for students to celebrate throughout their education, according to Stafford.  Rae Harris is an intern at the Ithaca Voice and a staff writer for Buzzsaw Magazine. She will be graduating from Ithaca College with a B.A. in journalism and a minor in sociology in May 2019. Contact her… More by Rae Harris Norman emphasized that colleges must define who the students they are trying to reach on campus are, explaining that schools cannot help a group without first identifying them.  Without the benefit of their parents’ college experiences, first-generation students may have trouble unpacking college’s “hidden curriculum” — understanding the significance of the syllabus, how to cite sources, what “office hours” means and more. This gap in knowledge means even the academic lingo can be an obstacle, explains Deana Waintraub Stafford, assistant director at the Center of First-Generation Student Success, a national organization driving innovation and advocacy for first-generation students.  “My goal in terms of programming and providing support for the first-generation students is professional development,” Munoz said. “How do we make sure that students persist and feel confident in their abilities, and also feel confident that IC is here to consistently support them? Whether that is bringing campus partners to help share information, or it’s having conversations around mental health and general wellbeing, I think that that really reflects the holistic development of students, period.” By the schools’ own counts, over 3,000 first-generation students attended Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College during the 2018-2019 academic year. Rae Harris “Since then (freshman year), I seek help from professors and mentors who have gone through the same process as I am going through,” Soto said. Despite the barriers, Norman said she sees many positive aspects of being a first-generation student.  The benefits of first-generation programs can also extend into the overall campus environment, creating a deeper connection to campus life and allowing for an increased sense of belonging— be it within student affairs, residential life or campus employment.  First-generation programming isn’t one-size-fits-all. Stafford said she has seen many successful approaches, including first-year experience programs, living-learning opportunities and on-campus employment.  At Cornell University, between 11% and 14% of each class during the 2018-2019 academic year self-identified as first-generation. The university’s programming for first-generation students includes the First-in-Class (FIC) program, a student support initiative where members are able to share goals, learn about resources, network and more. The Cornell First Generation Student Union, run by and for students, also supports and celebrates first-generation students through events, support groups and professional and social development. For Golden, her first-generation status was one aspect that helped to motivate her throughout her education.  During their first few weeks on campus, college freshmen sort out communal living, lecture halls, project deadlines, sports teams and making new friends. While this time is an opportunity for growth and change, the beginning of college can also be lonely and confusing. Getting started without family who have shared a similar experience is challenging, and it’s the reason Yolanda Norman, who went on to earn a doctorate after being the first in her family to graduate from college, established FirstGen College Consulting to help students get a solid footing. IC’s measures to assist first-generation students have already garnered praise from the Center of First-Generation Student Success. IC was given the designation of a “First Forward” institution by demonstrating a commitment to first-generation students.  “It was a rough start and I often wanted to quit because I didn’t feel like I belonged and felt guilty for going to college while my family still struggled back home,” Norman said. “However, as time passed, I found my stride.” “If my brother hadn’t gone to school, my parents wouldn’t have known how to help me decode college as much as they did. They knew more because they’d gone through it once already with him,” Golden said.  “We are navigators, entrepreneurs and pioneers. We bring with us the cultural capital of our family life and the linguistic capital to tell stories through our past experiences. We teach campuses that by helping the most vulnerable student, you have a chance to touch the entire student body,” Norman said. “Personally, being a first-generation college graduate (four times over) is an amazing accomplishment for me and it took me a while to see the value in my own experience.” First-generation tend to be older, are more likely to support dependents, and are more likely to work full time while attending school compared to their continuing-generation counterparts⁠, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. They often face barriers as they pursue their education, including financial challenges, lack of college readiness, difficulty with college adjustment, lack of family support, and for black and Latinx students — who are over-represented among first-generation students — racial discrimination.  Fallon Golden, an Ithaca College graduate, is a first-generation student but benefited by following in her brother’s path.  As his journey at Ithaca College went on, Soto found solace in on-campus organizations such as PONDER, a Latinx club where all of the executive board members were first-generation college students, and the First Generation Organization. Outside of first-generation programs, he became involved with other on-campus extracurriculars, including the club golf, volleyball and soccer teams.  “One of the things that my parents didn’t know a lot about was how stressful your first semester of school can be, and it would’ve been nice to have a pre-orientation program, with other people who didn’t know what to expect, to explain the social adjustments of college,” Golden said.  While Golden wasn’t a member of any first-generation organizations, she said she thinks FIRST Look would’ve been helpful when she was getting ready for college.  “There’s a huge barrier in the jargon that is used across institutions of higher-ed, specifically speaking to ‘office hours’, ‘syllabus’ and ‘add-drop form’ — these terms that have a larger meaning when said in the classroom,” Stafford said. “Then there’s an assumption that all present understand what that means or what the necessary steps to follow are. It becomes a huge barrier.” “The biggest thing is these voices are here. They’re present. They’re part of the fabric of our community,” Munoz said. “These programs are just meant to highlight their success and feel heard and appreciated because they’re giving so much to the campus community, and I believe that it’s our job to really highlight that and celebrate them through their milestones while they’re here.” “Once you define them, share that definition and engage the students so they feel confident in recognizing the value they bring to campus, as well as how to tackle the possible challenges they may face,” she said.  With about 15% of each incoming class identifying as first-generation, Ithaca College is stepping up with new initiatives to further assist and support their students. The new programs include FIRST Look, a pre-orientation program; FIRST Place, a residential learning and living community; and the creation of The First Generation Center, which will offer programming, lectures and leadership development opportunities throughout the academic year, according to a news release from Ithaca College. Lia Munoz, assistant director of New Student and Transition Programs at Ithaca College, will be running The First Generation Center.  Additionally, instead of simply focusing on a “program,” Norman suggests campuses should examine holistically how the values, mission and overall support system of the campus can improve and include the needs of first-generation students, as well as educating staff, faculty and administrators on the intersectionality of this student group.  ITHACA, N.Y. — Nestor Canenguez Soto has always loved two things: sports and taking care of people. When it came time for him to choose a college, Ithaca College’s six-year physical therapy program seemed like a natural fit. Still, as a first-generation college student, he found it challenging to navigate the program without being able to ask for advice from family members.  The proportion of first-year college students who are first-generation has declined slightly over the past two decades, as a higher proportion of kids are now raised in households with a college-educated parent. Still, nearly one in five freshmen enters school without the benefit of a parent’s prior college experience. Featured image: Cornell 2019 Commencement (Photo courtesy of Cornell University Facebook page.) Tagged: cornell university, first-generation students, ithaca college, Tompkins Cortland Community College The Cornell First Generation Student Union 2019 graduation ceremony. (Courtesy of FGSU Facebook page.) “My parents’ sacrificed a lot for me to go to school, so of course I wanted to make them proud,” Golden said. “But I didn’t feel any extra stress because of it — just a little more drive.”last_img read more