Honoring First-Generation College Students

11986355_10100310299369930_6593392396974906018_nLast year the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), in partnership with NASPA’s Center for First-generation Student Success and the American Association of Colleges & Universities, celebrated the inaugural First-generation College Celebration, which invites institutions to celebrate the presence and experiences of first-generation college students, faculty, and staff. The date, November 8th, was selected to honor the anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

In an industry with many events and programs, this celebration is an incredible opportunity to celebrate a population that is often viewed through a deficit lens. I think we can all agree that these students face many challenges, most of which are caused by flawed systems, but I don’t think we do a good enough job celebrating the many valuable traits these students bring to the college experience. I often share with students and colleagues that I did not recognize my status as a first-generation college student until I became a professional and a colleague identified me as such. As a professional, I find it troubling when discussions about how to support students comes from a place that assumes they are all helpless and hopeless. The irony, most times, is that these types of assumptions and flawed narratives are only reinforced by the professionals around the table who are first-generation college students themselves.  While I acknowledge the many important factors that contribute to the first-generation college student experience, I think it is also important to not view these experiences as all bad. Students, like faculty and staff, are incredibly smart and often understand the circumstances they face when we are honest with them.

Rather than focusing on all of the barriers that first-generation students face, find ways to share the many invaluable characteristics they have that will contribute to their success. I believe this is especially important for faculty and staff to remember. As we’ve graduated and advanced in our careers, our status as first-generation students has transformed, but that part of our identity continues with us. In my own experience, I’ve been fortunate enough to have parents and mentors who have helped me learn how to navigate politics at work, balance personal and professional responsibilities, and navigate feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome where I am often the youngest person in the room. Friends and colleagues have also shared their experiences related to learning how to develop and manage their personal budgets because their income is so different from the households they were raised in. My point is that we should never forget that there are many experiences in life where we experience things for the first time and there should be no shame or pity associated with those experiences. They are moments of great learning and opportunity, even when we stumble.

Regardless, today is a great reminder that despite the barriers that research and institutions so often remind us of about why success for first-generation college students is such a challenge, we should find joy and hope in those that have found success around us. This includes the student who made it through their first semester, as well as the faculty and staff who are in positions they didn’t know existed during their childhood. Whether you work on a college campus or in another role, I encourage you to reflect on “what will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?”.


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