Nearly a third of undergraduates in the U.S. are first-generation students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And, while receiving a college degree certainly brings pride to family and friends, earning that degree may come with some unique challenges for first-gens.
Fortunately, there are many ways universities can ensure that their campuses are "student ready" and that faculty and staff are prepared to welcome students with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. UC San Diego’s New Latinx/Chicanx Academic Excellence Initiative, for instance, honors the uniqueness of California’s fastest growing student population—Latinos—and supports their students’ dreams. By centering around this community’s strengths, the program looks to increase equity, helping the students have a successful college experience, especially first-generation Latinos.
The support from schools is key in helping first-gen tackle these challenges. Here are some ways these programs can support student success:
Leveraging available resources
Most university students get their academic and professional guidance from parents or close relatives who’ve already lived the college experience. But first-generation students don’t have these human resources available to them. This translates to them often being unaware of available campus resources, support systems and academic opportunities like tutoring, or professional ones such as internships.
By joining mentorship programs tailored for first-generation students, like UCSD’s Success Coaching, they may feel more welcomed on campus, while also getting to know people having a similar experience.
Tackling financial difficulties
Managing finances can be stressful for any college student. But studies have shown that financial burdens are the primary reason first-gen students leave school, with 33 percent of them dropping out within 3 years. For the students that do manage to stay in school, these financial challenges can add anxiety to an already stressful time in their lives. However, there are many resources available for students, and a series of scholarships and programs are tailored specifically to first-gens. For example, 55 percent of UC San Diego’s Chancellor Associates Scholars Program beneficiaries identify as Latinx/Chicanx.
Addressing feelings of isolation
First-gen students tend to be busy people, which means that it may not be as easy for them to take part in school events and other social opportunities. This disconnection from other students may lead to feeling left out. In an effort to foster a more inclusive campus, the Raza Resource Centro is a community space designed to offer connection, support and lift students up.
Being mindful of unique challenges
Moving to a different city and leaving family behind is hard for any college student but for first-gen students, the situation can be harder. Many first-gen students may feel like they “abandoned” their family—especially if their families have relied on them financially or because of a language barrier. This sense of responsibility combined with the newfound independence higher education brings to their lives, can create unease among first-gen students. Campuses need to be aware of the unique circumstances students may be facing and should be ready to help navigate them.
Many first-gen students come from marginalized groups. In fact, racial or ethnic minorities make up over a third of first-gen students. This means that, along with dealing with the previously mentioned difficulties, students may have to deal with ignorant or hurtful comments or actions from their peers. By fostering an environment that encourages inclusion and strives for equal opportunities, students will feel more secure in the pursuit of their goals and dreams.