When I first set foot on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder as an undergraduate, I had no idea what I was doing. My parents had not gone to college. Three of my grandparents had not even graduated from high school. No one in my extended family had advised me about choosing or preparing for college, let alone could they help me in navigating a university once I got there. I quickly realized that I had to figure out higher education on my own, and fast.
Nationwide, one out of every three first-year students start their first semester of college under similar circumstances, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That is also true at the institution I lead, The College of Saint Rose, in New York, where more than 30 percent of the students in our most recent first-year class are the first in their families to go to college.
While every personal situation is unique, students’ feelings and experiences are not—especially during the first year on campus. Almost all first-year students will feel overwhelmed at some point during the transition to college, and that emotion is magnified even more for first-generation college students who have little or no understanding of what is expected of them and what campus life will be like.
As educators, it is our responsibility to help first-generation students tackle as many of the educational, financial, social, and personal challenges that we can. Our support is vital to their success.
Here are five ways that all of us in higher education can help make their dreams a reality.
1. Establish programming specifically for first-generation college students.
Resources and support services customized to first-generation college students are necessary to help them during their first year. On our campus, our new division of student success and engagement launched a mentoring program three years ago for first-generation students called FLIGHT (First-Year Leaders Influencing Generations with High Tenacity).
Through this program, each student is paired with a personal FLIGHT Guide—faculty and staff who in most cases were first-generation college students themselves. Our FLIGHT Guides serve as personal mentors to their students, a role that takes many forms, including campus resource, motivator, and coach. FLIGHT works in conjunction with our other first-year experience initiatives, which together are designed to support a successful academic and personal adjustment to college life.
2. Create and nurture an inclusive campus community.
Today, higher education is more accessible to a wider array of people, and diversity and inclusion are practiced and celebrated on campus. That does not mean that all students feel supported or accepted, however.