Being a first-generation college student brings an overwhelming sense of pride. On the other hand, forging a new path as the first in the family to attend college can also invoke feelings of uncertainty, and even guilt.
Students and a faculty member from UNC Pembroke were among dozens of attendees who shared these and other personal stories during Class Action’s eighth annual First Gen College Student Summit. The event was held remotely in November.
“Our students were excited about being involved in the summit,” said Michele Fazio, a professor of English, who also presented. “It was wonderful to hear from students across the country and learn about the challenges they’ve had to overcome. I think our students added something new to the conversation this year by focusing on their experiences at a public university in a rural setting.”
UNCP’s student presenters – Kendarius Dixon, Breze Ervin, Tyreke King and Swetlana Solis-Garcia – participated in a workshop titled, “BRAVE Enough to be First: Students Talking about Class and Diversity in the Rural South.”
A recent survey shows 56% of undergraduates nationally are first-generation college students. Those numbers are slightly higher at UNCP where many are from low-income, working-class families.
During her presentation, Dr. Fazio described her first-year writing seminar, a first-generation learning community course that developed writing and research skills while also helping students overcome obstacles such as navigating a college campus. The First-Generation Learning Community is sponsored by New Student Programs in the University College and is one of eight communities on campus designed to assist new students in their transition to UNCP. Such courses create opportunities for students to build relationships with faculty and staff by incorporating co-curricular activities within the classroom.
“If you are not familiar with a campus environment, you don’t know who to ask for help,” Dr. Fazio said. “The course examined current research on first-generation programming and discussed ways to increase cultural and social capital. There is an expectation that first-generation students know certain things such as how to complete financial aid forms or search for scholarships and other professional opportunities.
“Often, students can’t go to their families with these questions,” she said. “Although we offer many resources on campus, there is a lot of stigma attached with seeking assistance. Too many students don’t want to cause any trouble or burden anyone with their problems.”
During their presentation, the UNCP delegation outlined efforts currently underway to develop a first-generation certificate program designed for faculty and staff. Participants will learn about challenges rural first-generation working-class students face at UNCP and what is being done to promote community and awareness on campus.
“An institution-wide approach to supporting first-generation students will offer long-term support for their academic success,” Fazio said. “It’s not just about retaining our first-year students, but making sure that every student returns to campus. We must address their needs throughout their academic career to ensure they receive the necessary support to be successful.”