There were times I doubted myself as an undergraduate, but in those days, no one in my family or at my university talked about those things. Lack of confidence, coupled with unfamiliarity with the higher-ed environment and the need to work for wages, can lead to isolation and loneliness. Faculty members, academic coaches, personal advisors, and counselors all play an important role in helping first-generation college students acclimate to campus communities. We must actively introduce them to these resources, and create opportunities and touchpoints for personal engagement—from face-to-face meetings to periodic phone calls and texts—to support the transition to college, offset anxiety, and help students develop positive, meaningful connections that will serve them during their time on campus and beyond.

3. Encourage students to ask for help.
I distinctly remember sitting down to read the course catalog for the very first time and trying to use it to chart a path that would lead to a degree. Fortunately, there are many professional offices at colleges and universities with the sole purpose of helping students succeed today. Our job is to help students find the places where they can have every last one of their questions answered, and we must encourage them to continue to seek guidance from individuals and support networks that will help them grow and learn.

4. Demystify financial aid.
It is no secret that financial aid can be confusing and difficult. This is even more the case for students and families who lack the experience, education, language facility, or time to sort through the complexities of the process. Taking time to guide first-generation college students and their families through the available options—including FAFSA, outside scholarships, and work study programs, among other—can help them overcome financial obstacles and challenges that stand in the way of a college education. The phrase “financial aid” will not be daunting if we make the process of researching and applying for aid as simple, transparent, and inviting as possible.

5. Include family.
Family members of first-generation college students typically have no idea of what the environment is like on a college campus, and how could they? At Saint Rose, we make it a point to do all that we can to help family members understand the possible stressors and issues facing first-year students. This starts with a College 101 workshop for parents during orientation and continues with regular communications and tips for supporting students from afar throughout the year.

All students deserve equal access to higher education. It is up to us as leaders to encourage, mentor, and advise first-generation college students, and to create the programs and processes they need to be successful. Doing so will help them to transform their lives, and their families, for generations to come.

About the Author:

Dr. Carolyn J. Stefanco is president of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. A first-generation college student herself, Dr. Stefanco has dedicated her entire professional career to ensuring that women and all students—regardless of their economic background—have equal access to higher education opportunities.


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