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First-gens lack increased support as numbers rise

Students express concern over resources, funding and program’s home in Third World Center

Though a record 18 percent of students accepted into the class of 2018 will be the first in their families to attend college, the University does not plan on increasing its funding for first-generation student support, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services and interim dean of the College.

The University currently provides first-generation students with support through an initiative housed in the Third World Center, but some students feel there is not enough funding for programs and resources to meet their needs.

“We’re increasing every year, but for what purpose?” said Stanley Stewart ’16, who is currently enrolled in GISP 0009: “First-Generation in the Ivy League.”

“I’m really proud we’re bringing so many students who are going to be the first in their families to (go to college), but we need to think a lot more critically about what to do with those students once they’re here.”


The right move?

About seven years ago, both the Office of the Dean of the College and the Office of Campus Life and Student Services  initiated separate efforts to improve first-generation student support through programs that have since fused, Klawunn said.

Increased support for first-generation students developed after the Admission Office began to report how many first-generation college students were being admitted, she added.

While Associate Dean of the College for Fellowships Linda Dunleavy began efforts to support advising for first-generation students, the OCL received a donation from an alum interested in creating first-generation student programming. At that time, the University was “recognizing that we were starting to get a critical mass of first-generation students here,” Klawunn added.

The first-generation student population is a “really diverse community, so it’s hard to generalize what their needs are,” said Joshua Segui, assistant director for co-curricular initiatives at the TWC.

As the first members of their families to go to college, first-generation students may not be able to seek advice from their parents on certain issues due to their inexperience with the college experience. They also may feel unprepared for classes or disoriented by the college environment and culture, said Manuel Contreras ’16, another GISP 0009 participant.

“Figuring out this culture for a lot of (first-generation) students is like decoding another language,” Stewart said.

Once the Office of the Dean of the College and the OCL decided to work together, they began to solicit student opinion, create faculty focus groups and bring in guest speakers to spark conversation about the challenges and needs of first-generation students, Klawunn said.

When these two offices were in charge of support, “there (were) a lot more resources allocated to first-generation programming” than there are now, said Jenny Li ’14.

Ultimately, the first-generation student support group was moved to the TWC as the University realized that many conversations among first-generation students focused on race and class, Klawunn said. Shifting support to the TWC would not only enrich these conversations, but also provide the TWC with more staffing, she added.

But students and administrators are now questioning whether the initiative belongs in the TWC, and the University is conducting an evaluation of the intiative’s “home,” Klawunn said.

Contreras said housing the initiative in the TWC “sends an interesting message to conflate students of color and first-generation students.” Students who do not identify as people of color might feel uncomfortable going to the TWC to talk about being first-generation students, he added.

“The TWC is already doing a million things for students on campus,” Li said, adding that the center’s resources are stretched thin.

First-generation students are “low on the totem pole” priority-wise, said Mya Roberson ’16. “We don’t really have the numbers compared to all of the minority students put together.”


‘Love, support and care’

According to its website, the TWC’s first-generation student initiative is “committed to providing academic and social support for first-gen students.”

Academically, the initiative does a “good job” supporting students, said Tolulope Lawal ’16, the initiative’s student coordinator. It has hosted events this year related to funding passions, studying abroad, LINK/SEW awards and internships, all specifically aimed at first-generation students, said Maitrayee Bhattacharyya, associate dean of the College for diversity programs.

“Everything that is done in the current initiative is done out of love, support and care,” said GISP 0009 participant Kim Charles ’16.

Bhattacharyya, Segui, Lawal and Mary Grace Almandrez, director of the TWC and assistant dean of the College, act as a “first line of resources and contacts for first-generation students,” Bhattacharyya said.

“Our mission is to support every student the best way we possibly can,” she said. “As an ongoing process, we’ll continue to collect input and feedback and think about what we need to do going forward.”

Outreach begins early, with a first-generation event during A Day On College Hill, Bhattacharyya said. Then, over the summer, the initiative sends a welcome email to incoming first-generation first-years. Once they arrive on campus, the initiative hosts an orientation week event where the students can meet each other for the first time, Segui said. This year, the initiative has created 13 different events specifically for first-generation students, including a welcome dinner, various panels and a bowling night.

The initiative seeks to partner with students to plan and organize programming, Bhattacharyya said, noting that some events are “student-initiated” and others are created based on student interest.


Improvements identified

Many first-generation students said they wished the University offered them more resources, better mentorship and opportunities to build a stronger sense of community.

“Funds allocated to first-generation events are very minimal in comparison to a lot of other programs,” Lawal said.

Funding is key to building a community of first-generation students, Roberson said. “Because of limited funding, there are only a couple of events held each semester.” As a result, there is “not as much of a community as there should be,” she added.

Though funding for first-generation student support will not increase next year, Klawunn said if there is a need and students come forward to say what resources would be helpful, the University will look into whether more money should be allocated to the initiative.

A few years ago, a first-generation student group existed that facilitated weekly or bi-weekly discussion, Li said. “It was a small community, but it was a community,” she added. By Li’s junior year, the group no longer existed.

The current initiative does not address the social challenges that come with being a first-generation student, Lawal said. “There might be a need for a student group,” he added.

Having a student group would allow for more funding and would make it easier to request space for events, Roberson said. “That’s something I’d like to see before I graduate.”

In 2007, a group of first-generation students created a mentoring group called First-Gen, The Herald reported at the time. Though this group is no longer active, many students feel that having a mentor who understands their perspectives would be beneficial.

“My Meiklejohn wasn’t first-generation and therefore couldn’t relate to the same issues,” Roberson said. It would be “greatly helpful” if first-generation Meiklejohns were matched with first-generation first-years, she added.

Klawunn said she wants to work on educating more advisers and deans so that they are aware of issues first-generation students face and know how to support them.

But the problem surrounding first-generation support may not be a lack of resources but rather students’ failure to take advantage of them, Stanley said.

Though many students often have a hard time asking for support, first-generation students who actively look for a mentor will find one, Li said. “There are some really wonderful people who look out for first-generation students,” she added.

But not all first-generation students think targeted support is necessary. “I don’t think first-generation students need help specifically designed for them, but rather we should have broader initiatives to help all first-time college students,” wrote Ronnie Wu ’16 in an email to The Herald.



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