Building a First Generation College Student Friendly Campus

Yolanda Norman - @FirstGenCollege  

Hello #EMchat Family!

Reasearch, research, research....that's pretty much my life right now and I'm loving every moment of it. Recently I was asked what recommendations I have for making a campus First Generation College Student friendly. I have tons of recommendations, but to make sure you don't spend hours reading all of the research I've done, let me try to sum it up for you.

  • Define It: Your campus has to have a clear definition of the term "first generation college student". There are a number of different definitions out there and your campus has to decide on one so that you know exactly who you are trying to help. My campus decided to go with the definition used by the U.S. Department of Education as mentioned in the TRIO grant program. We define #firstgen students as any student whose parents don't have a bachelor's degree.
  • Spread the Word, and the Love too:  Once you define it, share it with the campus...especially the first generation college students. This very important act allows a sense of belonging among so many firstgen and creates a sense of ownership for them. Each office on your campus can get in on spreading the word and moving this group from  "invisible" to "visible"!
  • Involve The Family: In a post I wrote last year, I talked about our efforts with families of firstgen and the important of making sure the student feels supported by those that are closest to them. From the beginning of admitting the student, to orientation, to choosing a major, and preparing for graduation, involving the families of this group of students is a must!
  • No Networking: Instead of the idea of teaching our students to network, some of my students "hate" that very word and feel like it's a fake way of getting something out of someone else. Teach them to "connect" instead. Those personal connections with other students (firstgen and non-firstgen alike), faculty, and staff helps with persistence. Remember, we are trying to counteract the "imposter syndrome" and remind these students that they deserve to be on campus and connecting with the university community is an important part.
  • Assessment: If you want to know if your efforts are working you have to assess it and put some quantifiable numbers on paper. Working with my Institutional Assessment office has been the greatest opportunity ever. These people are geniuses at what they do and the amount of information they can compare and help you think about is incredible. Tracking the progress of firstgens on your campus will help us all out as we look to fully support this growing population of students.

That's it! That's a pretty quick summary (I hope) of some things you can do to get started. If you are interested in learning more, follow me on Twitter (@firstgencollege) and let me know how I can be of service to your campus.

The Family Meet and Greet - The #FirstGen Way

A few weeks ago, we hosted our Annual "Family Weekend" on campus and new faces young and "experienced" were being seen on the yard. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and even family pets were learning about the college campus their student was now calling home. As families were registering for the different activities planned for the weekend, I was nervously excited about one event in particular. The First Generation College Student Meet and Greet. Image

You see. This wasn't the first year this event has been offered. Actually last year was the first year and NO ONE showed up. You might say I was a little sad last year when it happened, but that sadness turned into determination each day forward when talking with our firstgen students. The need to connect families was still there and it wasn't going away. I knew we needed to try again next year and try we did. This time, my students were involved and the university was more involved too.

Fast forward to this year, we had mothers, fathers, aunts, and siblings attend our Family Weekend FirstGen meet and greet. We talked about the FirstGen initiatives on campus and our three year journey of providing support to all our students. Families asked great questions and their students provided great answers. Opportunities for story telling and realization (one sibling discovered she was firstgen too) filled the room. It was such an inspirational and moving day. Parents had a chance to meet other parents who were experiencing the same feelings they were feeling all along and had someone they could connect with throughout their student's college journey.

All in all it was a great event. I'm so excited to see where the initiatives go from here as it started a great relationship with families and our university. I hope this encourages you to do the same for you students and their families on campus! Keep the conversation going on Twitter and let me know your thoughts!

The Transition - First Generation College Students

Hello Everyone. Today was our final FirstGen meeting of the Spring semester here at the University of St. Thomas. Some of our students are about to walk across that graduation stage decked out in their well-deserved cap and gown attire. College Graduates! They've beat the odds. Their journey of becoming a college graduate is really coming true and I couldn't be more proud of them. Now's the time to make sure that you are reminding your first generation college students of this important transition and all that comes along with it:

  • Finals Encouragement - I've already had to remind at least two of my graduating seniors that now is not the time to slack off and lose sight of why you are in college. Take time to check in with them these last few weeks and provide them that much needed pep talk to finish your college career stronger than you started.
  • Keep Fear In Perspective - Feelings of fear is very visibile during this time for some and it could possibly stem from "What is my life going to be like after college" and "Am I really ready to enter the real world?" Be that sense of reassurance for them that they've accomplished history for themselves and their family and you know they will continue to succeed. Remind them about still connecting with Career Services even if they've landed a job already. Career Services can help to talk about preparing for your new job, what to wear in the new work place, and how can my university help me after graduation.
  • The Family Role - Some of your students have a good balance with graduating and including their family in this amazing celebration. However, some may feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to include their family in preparing for this new journey. Teach students to continue to keep that important line of communication open with the family so they can discuss what's important about this time. Does the student really want a HUGE party the night of graduation or does she prefer a nice quiet dinner at home? This is not only a big time for the student, but their families have probably invested in the college journey too.

All in all, this is an exciting time for so many on our college campuses and we as professional staff have a chance to help in that experience. Please share your student's graduation stories (or even yours if your graduating...congrats!) here and also on Twitter. Don't forget to use the hashtag #EMchat as I would love to retweet and join in on your celebration! I certainly hope this helps you and the students you are trying to support!

First Generation College Students – The Important Family Connection

Hello everyone and welcome to Part II of the First Generation College Student series with EMchat! Last month I introduced you to our FirstGen student group and how it started. This time around I want to talk about some of the firstgen families I’ve met (and heard about) since our group began. My firstgen mentees come from all different family backgrounds and after spending some time with them, I quickly saw how each student was shaped and motivated by their family experiences. A common concern that most of my students have brought to the group is being able to balance their college life with their family life. Their questions and comments come from all over the spectrum:

  • “How can I help my family understand the time I have to commit to being a student?”
  • “My mom doesn’t understand that when I’m not in class, I still have obligations on campus and can’t just drop everything to come home and work at the restaurant.”
  • “Its more important to my family to have a job rather than waste money on a degree.”

Its obvious these students want their family to understand their aspirations to become a college graduate, but they don’t know how to balance it all and still make sure they keep that important connection with their loved ones. It was made clear during their struggles that we as university professional staff should make sure we include family support in our goals of working with firstgen students.

With these students’ voices taking the drivers seat, we’ve got to make sure we are supportive “side-seat drivers” and guiding them properly on their college journey. So what can you do on your campus?

  • Post helpful tips for parents and family members about supporting college students. Use the web and post brochures in key offices students visit often.
  • Host a parents panel and invite firstgen parents of juniors and seniors as the speakers. They have valuable experiences (challenges and successes) to share with other families!
  • Create a firstgen newsletter (we have one) and make sure the family knows how to get on the mailing list
  • Have a firstgen family meet and greet during Family Weekend or Little Sibs weekend (hmmmm, maybe I should do this. Good advice Yolanda. Thanks Yolanda!)

I certainly was able to understand where my students are coming from because I felt the exact same way during my college journey. I had to remember my college life was foreign to my family and I needed to take time to explain and bring them into my experiences. I had to balance helping them to understand they were still important to me and their support was always needed as I worked on becoming a college graduate. I hope this helps you and your students. Let me know your thoughts and feel free to leave a comment in the box below. Until we meet again…