In “What It’s Like to Be the First Person in Your Family to Go to College,” a recent article published in The Atlantic, author Liz Riggs chronicles the story of Harry, a first generation college student at Vanderbilt University. During his first few days of college, what should be the most exciting time of his life, Harry immediately feels isolated and out of place. The overwhelming financial demands of college also begin to set in, and Harry even thinks about leaving Vanderbilt.
Harry’s story is not unusual – many first generation college students know the feeling. But, the article also highlights some of the great resources out there that can help ease the transition, such as peer mentoring and campus organizations. Mentors, such as professors or older students, can help students simply by listening and suggesting ways to help others feel more a part of the community. Peer mentors are an especially powerful resource for students, in that they can provide guidance about the kinds of issues that directly concern students, such as extracurricular activities, choosing classes, and fitting in.
At Center for Student Opportunity, through the I’m First project, we find that for students, especially those who are the first in their family to attend college, peer-mentors serve as a great resource to help first-gens succeed in college. In fact, our online portal allows students to seek this kind of support from each other before they even step foot on campus. By interacting with each other, our first-gen students can share tips that will help them through the often-stressful first semester of college. Our current first-gen students have even made motivational and informational video stories for prospective first-gens, to provide them with this kind of peer support.
We believe that students should search for college with the lens of “What’s in it for me? What’s going to be on this campus that will support my success to pursue college?” The I’m First project features a number of College Partner profiles to help give prospective first-gens this fresh perspective. These profiles highlight great programs, such as peer mentoring, at a number of College Partners–including Vanderbilt University. We believe students should also focus on these opportunities when finding a best fit institution to aid them in feeling prepared when entering campus for the first time.
Sometimes, with all of the pressure around applying for and getting into the right school, we start to think of that as the “finish line.” The truth of the matter is, college is a whole new process in itself, especially for first-gen students. It comes with new challenges, new social groups, and maybe even a new city if one chooses to move away from home. That’s why it’s so important for our students to have access to as much, quality information about college as possible. Seeking out mentors and other on campus resources, such as academic advising, counseling, or various student groups, right at the start, can make things less difficult.
Connecting students with these resources is what I’m First sets out to do. Knowing that things might not be easy from the get-go can make it easier to deal with the early days. And remember – college is supposed to be some of the best years of your life! Give it time and be patient.
So what do you think? Is Harry’s experience typical? What can colleges and universities do to help first-gen students during this time of transition?