I was the first in my family to go to college.
The oldest child of an immigrant family, I worked since I was 11. I was 17 when I started at the University of Maryland, where I was a commuter student. I relied on a caring adviser and friends whose siblings and parents had been to college to help show me things like how to apply, how to register for classes and where The Dairy was to get ice cream in the afternoon.
I benefited from the knowledge of my friends, a good high school that prepared me well and having an extroverted personality. But like so many first-generation college students, I struggled because there were things I didn’t know. I was unaware of how scholarships and grants worked and what college fees meant other than I had to pay them. I bought all my textbooks brand-new, believing, as Rodney Dangerfield said, that it was better not to buy something that had already been read.
I am nearly finished paying off my student loans, which I wear as a badge of honor and without which I would not have been able to pay for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. They made a difference for me, but I am in a fortunate position to be able to pay for them—I often wonder how current generations of students manage postgraduation.
Today, many institutions have preparatory courses and programs in place to support first-gen students, to help them enroll and show them where the dining halls are on campus. But first-gen students often are still at a disadvantage because there are facets of college life that they just aren’t aware of and that are critical to their success.
In a recent Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, a majority—58 percent—of first-generation college undergraduates said they feel like they belong on their campus. Institutions are doing a reasonable, and arguably better, job in that regard.
But a quarter of the 1,073 students surveyed said they never tell their classmates or professors about their first-gen status. Slightly more than half of them said they only reveal their first-gen status in relevant discussions or situations. Two-thirds of the surveyed students said they felt closer to a professor who revealed that he or she was also first gen.
Clearly, there is still work to be done to eliminate the stigma surrounding first-gen students. Institutions need to make sure they feel comfortable and supported enough to admit when there’s something they don’t know, and to ask for help when they need it. Normalizing the unknown is key to facilitating the success of first-gen students.
I speak proudly about my own experience as a first-gen college student. It’s relatable when I tell students that I didn’t even know where the library was or how to find it when I first started college. I can empathize with how they’re feeling, and I am especially attuned to the resources they might need to be successful.
It’s important to recognize that the challenges associated with being a first-gen student also come with strengths. Our Oglethorpe University motto is nescit cedere, which translates to “those who do not know how to give up” and perfectly fits the resilience with which first-gen students come to college.
About 40 percent of Oglethorpe University students identify as first gen. Resources are available to those students whether they disclose their first-gen status or not. Our student and faculty advisers are tremendously helpful, and Oglethorpe is investing more resources into building and innovating a professional advising unit that attends to our diverse student body. Over the past two years, the university has redesigned its mental health services so that expanded resources are available to students 24-7.
A small university like ours is especially beneficial for first-gen students who want more one-to-one attention from counselors and advisers on campus. Indeed, in the Student Voice survey, students at private colleges were more likely to disclose their first-gen status to professors and classmates, were more likely to say their college had a center or events geared specifically toward first-gen students, and were more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities.
Our smaller, more intimate campus community means we can build those engaged relationships that make all students feel supported.
Once, one of our financial aid counselors met with a first-gen student who planned to drop out. The counselor pressed the student on why and discovered that they couldn’t afford the $200 needed to buy textbooks. This was an issue that Oglethorpe was able to quickly and easily assist with so that student did not need to give up on their education. But it also showed us how the student didn’t know this particular problem had a simple solution, or that students could come to the university for help with something like this.
Part of the college experience is being OK with the fact that you don’t know everything and figuring out how to handle that reality. I know firsthand how humbling it is to have to ask for help.
We need to make sure all students, and especially first-gen students, know it’s OK to not know everything and that they can depend and lean on us for help when they need it.