A few weeks ago, I came across an article by Jason DeParle of the New York Times ‘For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall‘ that chronicles the struggles, both on campus and off, of three low-income students vying to be the first ones in their families to earn a college degree. Since roughly 60% of the college students enrolled at my university are first generation college students, the stories of these three young people echoed tales that I have heard over and over again throughout my tenure as a success coach. With such a high percentage of first generation students at my university, I have, of course, seen many students who have been able to overcome the obstacles that this status confers upon them, but I’ve also seen students fall victim to the myriad pressures and challenges of being the first person in a family to attend college.
How can we better understand the unique challenges faced by these students? And what can we, as success coaches, do to ensure the retention and graduation of first generation students? It’s important to understand that first generation college students experience challenges both off campus and on. Off campus challenges can at times seem paradoxical. Some students struggle with the pressure of having families and even whole communities who are behind them 100%, cheering them on, praying for their success. But this support can be so much more complicated than a “go get ‘em tiger” slap on the back. A student who is the first in his or her family to attend college has, in effect, become “the chosen one.” The one who will “make it” and then bring everyone else along. Thus, these students feel like they have a duty to succeed, not just for themselves but for the whole family. They become responsible for lifting up all the loved ones in their lives who were not given this special opportunity. They become like Atlas, and what would Atlas do if and when those who are working so hard to give him this opportunity discover that he is faltering, or failing English 101?
However, while some students feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, others struggle from the lack of support from family and community. I’ve had multiple students tell me of going home for a weekend only to face taunts of, “oh, here comes college boy! You think you’re better than me just because you go to college?!” And some students face both a surfeit and a lack of support simultaneously! A few years ago, I worked with a student named Devon. Devon was a first generation college student from a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. After we had met a few times, he began to open up to me about his family. “My mom and my aunt,” he said, “are so supportive. They want me to be the one to succeed so much.” At this point Devon’s GPA was abysmal, and as we talked about ways to improve academically he added, “but my dad doesn’t think I should go to college at all. He says that I’m not better than he is, and he never went to college. He tells me I am going to fail anyway, so I might as well start saving now to pay back my loans.”
Regardless of how much or little support they get at home, first generation students can sometimes experience feelings of guilt that they are in college at all. They worry that they are abandoning their families or inadvertently losing a connection to their communities. All college freshman enter school hoping to be changed and bettered in some way by the experience, but many first generation students fear that change as much as they desire it. And when they arechanged, as we all are by new experiences, they can, at times, feel caught between two worlds.
First generation college students also face on-campus challenges. For one, there are the nuts and bolts of navigating the terrain that all new students face. How do I register? What in the world do all of these terms mean on my financial aid form? How do I apply for extra grants or loans? Can I resell this $200 textbook I needed for exactly ten weeks of my life? However, unlike students whose siblings or parents have walked this road before, first gen-ers A) have no one back home to advise them and B) sometimes don’t know that these questions are confusing and intimidating for every new student, so they keep mum, try to “fit in,” and don’t ask the questions to which they most need answers.
Thus, one of the biggest services mentors like success coaches can provide is to be an open forum for questions and uncertainty. It is so important for these students, much like it is for international students and veterans, to feel like they have someone to talk to, whether that’s a coach, an RA, a success coach, or even an older student who has been in their situation before, who they trust. With my first generation students, I help them navigate financial aid forms, the registration process, and work study options. I inform them about tutoring programs and other resources. I give them information on ways to connect to the campus at large through clubs and organizations, since we know that a sense that one has found one’s place in the campus community is perhaps the single best predictor of whether or not a student will stay enrolled. But more than anything, I try to provide them with a support system, a home away from home. I make sure they know that no question is too “dumb,” and no issue to seemingly insignificant to discuss.
America’s greatest asset has always been its people- its dreamers, its adventurers, its pioneers. For many first generation college students, stepping foot on a college campus for the first time is no different from disembarking off a gangplank at Ellis Island, or catching a first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean from the back of a conestoga wagon. It is the moment when one realizes that, while a seemingly impossible dream has been realized, the real journey has only just begun.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.