When Rhonda Gonzales was in college in the early '90s, the term "first-generation" wasn't part of her vocabulary. Sure, she was the first in her family to go to college and she did have a sense of discomfort on campus — not quite fitting in. But it wasn't something she advertised, or even identified with, and no one else on campus seemed to care much, either.
Today, it's a very different story. Gonzales is now a dean and a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she started a program for first-generation students. One important component: match students with faculty members who were also first-generation students — professors like her, who have worn those uncomfortable shoes, and still found success. They call these groups familias.
And a sense of family, of belonging, is something first-generation students often feel is missing from their college experience — with serious consequences. Many say they feel isolated and out of place; that there are unwritten rules on campus that everyone else knows but them.
But now, the push to identify and support first-generation students, often defined as those whose parents never earned a bachelor's degree, has spread to campuses across the country. In fact, there's even a national day that celebrates these "first-gen" students — Nov. 8.
At small, liberal arts schools, big state schools and regional community colleges there are posters on campus with phrases like "First-Gen Proud," there are orientation programs. On several campuses, you can live with other first-gen students if you want. There are first-gen clubs, T-shirts, pins, even graduation caps, cords and stoles.
"The swag is out of control!" says Sarah Whitley, the director of the Center for First-generation Student Success. And that's a good thing, she says, because awareness is key. But this often-overlooked group of students needs a lot more in the way of actual support.
Why all the attention?
First-generation students make up about half of all college students, but only 27% complete a bachelor's degree in 4 years — about half the national average for all students.
When schools focus on these first-gen students, they can at the same time target support to other groups that face extra challenges in higher education: low-income students, non-white students, rural students and veterans. First-gen students are "from every race, ethnicity and background," says Whitley. "They are from every economic status; they are from high schools that have 10 students and high schools with 3,000 students."
Most colleges now collect data on how many many first-generation students enroll, according to research from NASPA, a national organization of student-affairs administrators. Nevertheless, only 61 percent of those schools track graduation outcomes of first-gen students; about half use that data to inform support programs; and only 28 percent give that data to faculty.
"We want those celebrations to begin a conversation," says Whitley. "You get this door open and then, let's actually resource these programs. Let's actually talk about it in a systemic way and remove the barriers to success for students, so it can turn into real value for students."
Inside a successful program
North Central College, a small private school outside Chicago, prints up a list each year that gets handed out at freshmen orientation: It includes every person on campus who was the first in their family to go to college. There are professors of mathematics, chemistry, economics and art; the dean of admissions is on there; the track and field coach and the baseball coach, plus folks who work in residential life, counseling, career services and facilities.
"Whenever a new employee starts, I run up and say, 'Are you first-gen?' " says Julie Carballo, the director of first-generation programs at the college. "The list is very powerful. The relief and inspiration and motivation that brings to the students and their parents when they see that. It's just so reassuring."
About 43% of students at North Central are first-generation, so Carballo, with financial backing from the school's administration, runs an extensive program to serve them. It's called Cardinal First, named after the school's mascot, and there's on-going programming for each year of study.
"I think it's really beneficial for the first-gen students to have somewhere to go when they have a question," says Carballo. "I tell them it's the insider knowledge about what you need to do to be successful."
Samantha Sowa is a junior now, but she remembers arriving on campus and feeling really overwhelmed. "I think that first impression is that it is a secret language. I don't know how I'm going to tackle it. How am I going to be able to navigate through this college? How is it going to work?"
She was the first in her family to pursue a bachelor's, and in talking with other students whose parents had 4-year degrees, she confirmed she was missing out. "We don't have anyone in our families to rely on to give us that advice," she says, "so we need some help from the broader community to help us to get on board."
That's where Cardinal First comes in. Carballo has designed workshops and lectures to help break down that secret language. The add/drop policy? That's the deadline you need to know if you want to change around your class schedule. Office hours? That's a set time to go meet your professor — and you don't have to talk about class: you can just say hello and introduce yourself!
"It's stuff that we're hearing for the first time or maybe have heard about a little bit, but don't necessarily understand," explains Sowa, who now works as an ambassador for the program, to help mentor first-gen freshmen.
One of the staples of the program is the free meals — for freshmen, there are lunches every other Friday, for sophomores, it's dinner once a month. At each meal, the students are joined by faculty who were first-gen students, too. And there's a scholarship component: If you come to a majority of the events, you'll get a $1,000, recurring scholarship.
"We don't think that's the value of the program," says Carballo, "but if that's what gets you here, that's fine with us." And the results are pretty dramatic: Students persist, meaning they come back the following semester, at a rate of 93% — that's higher than the rates for the overall student population at North Central. For students who started in the program in 2015, 81% graduated in May of 2019 — earning their degree in four years.
Making a community
Donnavieve Smith, a professor of marketing at North Central, is a frequent guest at the Cardinal First meals. On the day I visit, she's having lunch with about 10 freshmen, sharing her story:
She grew up on the south side of Chicago. Her father worked two full time jobs, her mother was clerk at a bank. She talks about her struggles in college, and how she mastered time management and found a support system and a mentor.
The students pepper her with questions: How did you find a mentor? How did you pick your major? Why did you become a professor?
"I think it's very important, as first-gen students and professors, for us not to be afraid of sharing our background with others," she tells the group. "Share your background, share about your family. Talk about what they've done, be proud of your heritage. The more we as a community of first-geners share our story, I think the more empowered other individuals around us will become. There's a lot of power in that."
Building a network and connecting with faculty is a huge component of the program here, and that's based on research that shows it helps students graduate. But even simply talking with professors can be really scary, explains Carballo, so she's constantly role-playing with students, to help them prep for these interaction. Sometimes they even script out what to say, and how to say it.
There's a first-gen center on campus, a room for students to study (it has a few computers), and it's right next to Carballo's office. Some professors have started to hold office hours in that room, to make it more comfortable and accessible for students — who can slip into Carballo's office right before if they need a quick pep talk.
The community is the most important part, explains Samantha Sowa. "We do feel exclusive. We feel like it's our own little bond, our own little club. And it's something that we can all relate to."
She says the things she's learned have not only made her feel like she belongs, they've helped her get the most out of her time at college. Her younger brother just started his freshman year a few states away and he's constantly texting her questions about classes, professors and navigating campus. So far, she's been able to answer all his questions — and pass on a bunch more "insider" tips. She says she learned it all from Cardinal First.
Many educators and first-gen students say a lot of their success starts with that feeling of turning what was once a disadvantage into a source of identity.
Adrian Cruz is a first-gen senior at the University of Florida. In high school he didn't even know there was such a term — or that it applied to him. Four years later, he fully embraces it. "When I introduce myself at career fairs I'm like, 'Hello, I'm a first-gen student, studying engineering,' " he says. "I feel like that first-gen designation can be beneficial. It's something to be proud of."