Navigating the First Year for First Generation College Students

October 10, 2016

Across the United States and between institutions, the definition of a first-generation college student varies. US News defines a first-generation college student as a student whose “parents either have no college experience or didn't earn a bachelor’s degree” (Boyington, 2015, pg. 1). This definition is unclear whether a student with one parent that attended college but did not graduate is considered a first-generation student. Although there is no universal definition of first-generation status, this paper will refer to first-generation students using Dartmouth’s definition. Dartmouth’s definition of a first-generation student - one for whom “neither parent graduated from a four-year college” is among the most inclusive metrics used by colleges in the United States (Hardwick, 2014, pg. 1). Without life-long preparation from their family and having to deal with burdening part- or full-time responsibilities, first-generation college students may find that transitioning into a new environment can be extremely difficult and daunting.

First-generation college students are disadvantaged compared to non-first-generation college students because they have limited knowledge and mentorship with paying for and succeeding academically in college. First-generation students also differ from their counterparts because their “average age of enrollment… is 22, compared to 20 for students who are not first generation” (Pell Institute, 2012). While most people believe that first-generation students being able to attend college is a big accomplishment, first-generation college students “commonly struggle with… shame, guilt and inadequacy” (Boyington, 2015, pg. 1). This is attributed to the fact that students may need to leave their family and house for the first time to attend college. Furthermore, “first-generation often means low-income families as well, but not always,” possibly indicating that first-generation students will struggle independently or with their families to pay for their college education (Boyington, 2015, pg. 1).

            Regardless of a student’s background, obtaining a degree from a four-year college or institution comes with certain societal advantages. In many situations, first-generation students are seeking to achieve a degree from a four-year college or institution to not only create better lives for themselves and their families, but also improve the livelihoods of the people in the communities where they come from. Providing first-generation students with the opportunity and resources to succeed in the college environment will help build the world to become a more diverse and equitable place.

Across the nation, four-year colleges and institutions both large and small have created programs specifically geared towards assisting their first-generation students in adjusting to their new college environment. George Mason University offers “summer programs that aim to ease the transition for first-gen students” (Boyington, 2015, pg. 1). George Mason University’s six-week Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) requires students to stay on the Virginia campus and take two three-credit classes for free the summer before their freshman year. Students have mandatory study hall and learn about campus services as a part of the STEP program.

​            The objective of programs such as STEP is to help students get used to their new campus and help both students and parents understand the financial, academic, and social aspects of college. While it is important to focus on educating first-generation students on adjusting to college, parents will be equally if not more interested on the financial burdens and academic benefits of college, as they will likely be assisting in paying for college and will want to see what their expenses are going towards.

These are many important issues that need to be addressed early for first-generation students by the college or institution, because Boyington, 2015, pg. 1 noted that “first-gen [students] are less likely to ask for help” as compared to non-first-generation students (Boyington, 2015, pg. 1). Yolanda Keith, a senior assistant director of admissions at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, noted that “a lot of times [both] the parents and the students may not know where to go to access​ or to answer the questions they have” about their college, its campus, and the resources it offers to students” (Boyington, 2015, pg. 1). Thus, it is important for schools to hold informational sessions and events targeted specifically for first-generation students and their families to answer big-picture and logistical questions commonly asked by first-generation students.

Dartmouth College has a program similar to the University of Washington’s First Year Programs, known as First-Year Student Enrichment Program (FYSEP). Of Dartmouth’s roughly 150 first-generation students that accept their admissions to Dartmouth each year, between 50 and 55 students are invited to participate in FYSEP. FYSEP is an 8 day program before the start of the academic school year that provides academic support, social programming, and one-on-one peer mentoring to guide first-generation students through their first year of college. Highlights include sampling Dartmouth classes, mentorship from a Dartmouth upperclassman that has faced a similar transition, and seminars to enhance students’ skills to tackle challenges in high-pressure environments. Dartmouth’s FYSEP is found to be extremely useful for first-generation students that opt to participate in the program, as they feel adequately prepared for college having gone through FYSEP. Student testimonials have claimed that they are “100% convinced that FYSEP is what got [them] through [their] first year” and that “Pre-Orientation was amazing” because they learned “skills that will rival that of a sophomore” (Dartmouth, 2016)

First Year Programs needs to promote student organizations that focus on providing campus resources that will directly benefit first-generation students. Furthermore, First Year Programs can support the transition into college of first-generation students by hosting specific events targeted towards these students during Dawg Daze. First Year Programs could host a program similar to Dartmouth College’s FYSEP, except with the capacity to hold or admit a majority of each year’s incoming first-generation students, instead of being a highly selective program.

A great opportunity for peer-to-peer mentorship would be to pair University of Washington students that are first-generation students and have self-identified as having successfully transitioned into the college environment with each year’s incoming first-generation students. This would be a completely voluntary program, but would provide current first-generation students with a leadership opportunity that they likely highly desired. For first-generation student mentees, this would provide a more comfortable environment for them to learn about transitioning into college from a student perspective, without the intimidation of having to work with an authoritative figure in the beginning of their college experience. This program could pair students of the same major together so that new first-generation students can be guided in the classes to take, applying for the major, and getting involved in clubs or organizations that pertain to the students’ major or interests.

While it is found that nearly “60 percent of students [in the United States] whose parents attended college graduated within five years, less than 45 percent of first-generation students graduated in the same time frame” (Pell Institute, 2011). Even more unfortunately, “only 11 percent of low-income first-generation students earn a bachelor's degree” (Pell Institute, 2011). This is attributed to the fact that low-income first-generations may need to help support their families back at home while finding ways to pay for their college tuition. The Pell Institute found that “54 percent of first-generation students were financially on their own, while only 27 percent of students who were not first generation had full financial responsibility for themselves” (Pell Institute, 2011). Furthermore, it is found that “30 percent of first generation students had dependents” while taking classes in college (Pell Institute, 2011). Beyond paying for tuition and their dependents, first-generation students may not financially have access to the resources that are helping non-first-generation students succeed in the classroom, such as textbooks and electronics. Since such a large majority of incoming first-generation students may qualify for financial aid through FAFSA and the University of Washington’s several scholarship programs, First Year Programs should develop a workshop before February to ensure that students have adequate mentorship and assistance in applying for their FAFSA for the following year.

Priding itself on its diverse student body and inclusive environment, The University of Washington “value[s] and honor[s] diverse experiences and perspectives, strive[s] to create welcoming and respectful learning environments, and promote[s] access, opportunity and justice for all” (University of Washington, 2016, pg. 1). Though first-generation students may not be as familiar with college resources as their non-first-generation counterparts, they are an integral part of the University of Washington. The University of Washington’s tagline encouraging students to “Be Boundless” means that all students should be given the opportunity to pursue their goals and make an impact. Through the aforementioned programs that could be put into place at the University of Washington, First Year Programs could help first-generation students seamlessly transition into and navigate their entire four years of college.

Works Cited

Boyington, Briana. "Prepare for College as a First-Generation Student." US News. US News, 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 6 July 2016.

"Diversity at the UW." Diversity at the UW. University of Washington, n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2016.

Hardwick, Zac. "Colleges Differ in ‘first-generation’ Definitions." The Dartmouth. The Dartmouth, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 6 July 2016.

Material, Reference. "First Generation College Students Graduation Rates." Concordia Portland Online. Concordia University, 2 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 July 2016.

Metz, Gregory, Joseph Cuseo B., and Aaron Thompson. Peer-to-peer Leadership: Transforming Student Culture. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Riva, Crystal De La. "First Generation." Chapman University. Chapman University, n.d. Web. 06 July 2016.

Smith, Ashley A. "Who Are First-generation Students and How Do They Fare?" Insider Higher Ed. Insider Higher Ed, 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 06 July 2016.