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Youth Voice: Four Ways to Support First Generation College Students

Julie Pham Headshot

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

“Keep pushing yourself. You have to do this. The world is on your shoulders.”

These are words that, as an 18-year-old freshman in college, I said to myself when I received my first ‘C’ on a paper. I had graduated high school at the top of my class, but after the first month of college, I was struggling. I felt alone.

I am a first generation college student, which means I was the first person in my family to go to college. It also means that I am less likely to graduate on time, according to data from 2011.

Low-income first generation students are even less likely to graduate—90 percent don’t graduate within six years—but finances aren’t the only barriers to getting a degree.         

Now that I’m halfway through my college experience, I’ve learned a lot about what would have helped me feel less alone, and it goes beyond one diversity program. Specifically, here are four ways that college staff and administrators could help all first generation students feel more supported and be more likely to succeed.

  1. Use inclusive language.

When I arrived on campus, I didn’t know the difference between seminars and lectures or how to structure a history paper. One day, I stayed after class and told my professor I was struggling.

“Come to office hours!” she said. I responded, “What are office hours?”

She seemed surprised. Though it seems like an easy concept, administrators, teachers, and staff often throw around phrases that are not familiar to first generation students.

Even something as simple as creating a special page for first generation students on the campus website that explains even these most basic terms would go a long way.

Student studying

  1. Offer fly-in programs for prospective students and travel grants for admitted students.

When I brought up visiting colleges to my parents, they told me they couldn’t take time off of work. So I never visited the college I ended up deciding to attend. Various colleges are now providing fly-in programs, diversity events where students can be flown in free of cost to visit prior to the application deadline, or they enable students to visit after they have been admitted.

  1. Hire and train residential advisors who are educated about multicultural and first generation issues.

The first day I moved into my dorm, I was greeted by my Minority Peer Counselor. Instead of the typical RA’s, Brown University’s Office of Residential Life employed Women Peer Counselors to provide a safe space and initiate, perpetuate, and facilitate discussion on women's, gender, and sexuality issues.

They also employ Minority Peer Counselors to raise awareness of the many barriers that continue to challenge minority students' ability to thrive in a diverse environment.

Student in Library

When I had questions about how to talk to professors or how to find resources such as textbooks when I couldn’t afford them, my Minority Peer Counselor was the person I knew I could depend on.

  1. Emphasize the importance of mental health and provide supportive services.

Overall, colleges and universities should understand the specific needs of first-generation college students, and implement targeted initiatives to better support them. I’m lucky that I attend a university that is constantly pushed by first generation students to provide more support.

I hope other first generation students can also self-advocate to push their universities to ensure success for all students, especially success for students from less privileged backgrounds.  

Julie Pham, 20, is a student at Brown University, majoring in political science and urban studies. She currently serves on the America’s Promise Alliance Board of Directors.

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The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.  

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