First-generation students are an asset for colleges and universities

Institutions can adopt an asset-based viewpoint toward first-gen students and change the culture on campus.
By: | December 14, 2020
North Central College (Ill.)North Central College (Ill.)

For many years, the conversation surrounding first-generation students has been about the challenges and struggles they face. Even as colleges and universities are becoming more thoughtful about how to connect with and support first-generation students, the mindset too often is deficit-based, focusing on what they may lack rather than their strengths.

Julie Carballo, North Central College

Julie Carballo, North Central College

While it is true that first-generation students oftentimes do need some additional or different support than their peers whose parents have college degrees, first-generation students are an asset to any campus community. By the time they make it to a college classroom, they have already proven they can overcome obstacles and blaze their own trail. They are the type of students we all want to recruit to our institutions and to help prepare as the leaders of tomorrow.

Since we launched our initial first-generation program in 2008, North Central College has understood this about first-generation students. About 40% of our students are first-generation (higher than the national average) and we’ve used this asset-based viewpoint to change the culture of our campus. Here’s how your campus can do it, too.

1. Foster the sense of “you belong here.”

We intentionally create a strong sense of community and connection in ways both big and small. We maintain a first-gen student center on campus, match students with first-gen faculty and staff mentors and host an ongoing series of interactive workshops to help teach them the “insider knowledge” about college to help them thrive. We select and provide leadership development for a team of 75 first-gen sophomores, juniors and seniors to mentor our first-year, sophomore and new transfer students.

We offer cohort-based programming in monthly lunch workshops from a student’s first day on campus all the way through graduation. The workshops are strategically planned and implemented to build community, create a fun and engaging atmosphere and provide timely and important content related to academic success and personal/professional growth. They are held at multiple times so students can find a time that works with their schedule and we’re intrusive about making sure students plan to attend.

To help students connect and feel less alone, we provide name tags and assigned seating at events, insist that they put away their phones and engage during the one-hour workshops, facilitate team building activities and highlight students and their successes on social media. For First-Gen Celebration Day on Nov. 8, we handed out swag, including a 2021 Cardinal First planner/calendar (which we’ll teach them how to use), stickers, beanies, folders, pens, treats and—this year—masks and hand sanitizer.

2. Leverage your first-gen faculty and staff.

More than 125 of our faculty and staff members were the first in their families to attend college. They each have signs on their door identifying them as first-gen and inviting first-gen students to connect. They share their stories and wisdom at workshops, mentor first-gen students in their departments and more.

Because research shows that first-gen students are less likely to engage with faculty outside the classroom, we build that connection into our program, including first-gen faculty at every workshop for first-year, transfer and sophomore students. Our first-gen faculty—all volunteers—come not to talk about their research or expertise, but to share stories of how they themselves overcame obstacles in their first two years of college. We also ask them to share what they’ve learned about life from their parents, as we always want our students and their families to know that parents may not have completed a college degree but still have a lifetime of wisdom to offer. This storytelling is empowering for both the storytellers and the listeners, who realize they are traveling in good company.

First-gen faculty and staff at North Central College share what they’ve learned about life from their parents; we want our students to know that parents may not have completed a college degree but still have a lifetime of wisdom to offer.Click To Tweet

3. Make it last.

First-Generation Visit Days mean we’re engaging students before they even arrive. These can be individual or group visits; many local high school guidance counselors and even some junior high staff, have started bringing their first-gen students in groups. Additional grant funding has allowed us to partner with 10 local high schools, with a goal of reaching 500 first-gen high school students, to offer workshops with a panel of our current first-gen students on topics they wish they’d known in high school.

Once students begin their college journey, institutions should ensure programming lasts beyond the first year. Connect students to the information, resources, opportunities and experiences that will help them thrive on your campus and beyond. We work hard to make sure students, at every step of their college journey, understand the value of these resources and opportunities, know how to connect to them and understand the advance planning required to seize them (e.g. that study abroad needs to be planned about a year in advance, that summer internships are found during the prior fall).

Reinforce help-seeking and question-asking as signs of a successful college student, not a struggling one. At every workshop, we say, “Please don’t leave here with any unanswered questions.”

Though some first-gen students may need extra guidance or academic support, they are certainly capable of meeting the high expectations colleges and universities set for their students. They can learn the so-called “hidden curriculum” of college, and bring fresh perspectives to campus during a time where a diversity of experiences and viewpoints are so valued. We are proactive and strategic about ensuring first-gen students gain leadership experience while in college. Our first-gen students hold leadership positions in many campus organizations, serve as student representatives on the college’s DEI task force and act as peer advisors for the Office of Career Development.

We know that this asset-based approach works: Students in our first-gen program have a persistence rate of 92%, which is higher than the persistence rate for students overall at North Central College. And among the students who entered the Cardinal First program in 2015, 81% graduated four years later.

Being a first-gen student is meaningful, not just to the student but also to their families and their community. They become role models and inspiration for those in a younger generation who may follow in their footsteps. Colleges and universities would be wise to proactively support their success and to recognize, appreciate and celebrate the many assets first-gen students bring to our campus communities.

Julie Carballo is director of first-generation initiatives and veteran and military-affiliated student services at North Central College.