Panthers share first-generation experiences

Patricia Katri/ Contributing Writer

College is often a time of many firsts: first time living on your own, first time thinking seriously about a career, first time contemplating adulthood.

For first-generation college students, meaning first in their families to enroll in and/or obtain a four-year college or university degree, these firsts can be accompanied by particular joys and tribulations, including high parental expectations.

“As a first-generation college student, [I faced] a lot of pressure from my family,” Destiny Medina, a sophomore and psychology major said.  “They had high expectations for me to get straight-As, to be involved, and even eventually to become a doctor.”

Madeline Tablada, a freshman and biology major, echoes this sentiment.

“I’m the first in my family to seek higher education which will set the bar for future generations,” she said.

The overall number of such students has increased over the last 40 years.  Of 7.3 million full-time undergraduates attending four-year colleges and universities, 20 percent are the first in their family to go to college.

The College Board acknowledges some of the challenges faced by first-generation college students, advising counselors working with students who are preparing for college to reach out to these students early, to involve the family, and to help explain what college will be like.

“First-generation students may never have been encouraged to assess their talents and weaknesses with a view toward higher education,” the College Board states on its website.  “They are likely to have minimal knowledge of what education requirements are for certain professions.”

Others are as knowledgeable about their future prospects as their counterparts from “college-going families,” those who have sometimes sent generations of family members to institutions of higher learning.

“I’m currently majoring in psychology, hoping to go to graduate school and have a concentration in mental health,” Medina said. “My dream would be to become a psychiatrist and open my own practice here in Florida and even internationally.”           

Tablada also has definite career plans.

“I plan on attending medical school and become a forensic pathologist and/or physician in emergency trauma,” she said.

According to website Inside Higher Ed, the term “first-generation college student” itself requires clarification: does it refer to students who come from homes where neither parent has a degree, or where neither has ever enrolled in college?  What if a live-in step-parent has attended college? Or only one parent attended?  Do the latter qualify?

While educators and policy-makers might throw the term around without defining it explicitly, the U.S. Department of Education specify the first generation student as one where neither parent has a college degree.

In its First Generation Scholarship program, FIU extends this definition, inviting applications from students “whose parents or legal guardians have not earned a baccalaureate degree.”

FIU offers extensive counseling services for first-generation college students. To be eligible for coaching and guidance for first-generation students, offered by Student Affairs, a student “must be a first-generation college and/or financial aid recipient and/or [be] registered with the Disability Resource Center.  In addition, participants must be US citizens or legal residents currently enrolled as undergraduate students at FIU.”  

Additionally, students must apply to and participate in the Student Support Services Program.

First-generation college students may require special assistance in becoming engaged with their education.  High levels of engagement can be particularly important to college students, as there is often a high correlation between student engagement and university retention and graduation rates.

In a 2012 study, researcher Krista M Soria found that first-generation students have lower academic engagement and lower retention as compared to non-first-generation students.

Many, however, do not exhibit this trend. For Medina and Tablada, engagement extends beyond the classroom.  

“I’m trying to get involved with PASS, a psychology club, Alternative Breaks, and am also thinking about joining a sorority,” Medina said. “I am attempting to gain the greatest college experience that I can.”

Tablada echoes this level of involvement.

“So far, I’m in a sorority, but I plan to be part of multiple organizations on campus,” she said.

Understanding financial aid, the College Board states, is particularly important for first-generation college students.  However, colleges and universities may overlook this unless first-generation students seek counseling themselves through such programs as those offered by Student Affairs.

“The university did not counsel me at all with financial aid,” Tablada said.

Overall, perhaps the greatest reward for first-generation students is the prospect of becoming role models within their own families, which now may have a wealth of information to draw from as future generations prepare for college careers and find themselves part of the college-going tradition.

“I’ve been told by family members that I’m an inspiration,” Medina said.
And in terms of being a first-generation college student, Tablada responds: “It’s pretty cool.”

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