Showing First Generation Students They Belong at Your University

First Generation Students: Image of a woman reading at an academic library

The first generation college student often feels alone in navigating the processes and culture of higher education. In this article, we wanted to highlight some of the programs that are making them feel welcome.


by Elizabeth Hubbell and Daniel Fusch

The challenges first-gen students face are well-documented, as is their determination and grit. Their presence at our colleges and universities represents one of the best things about American higher education—the way it gives students an open door to create more opportunities for themselves and their families.

Yet, one of the pervasive obstacles and the most difficult to battle is the feeling of “I don’t belong here.” Surrounded by other students who appear to navigate college smoothly and have a wealth of family advice and experience they can draw upon, the first-generation student can feel alone. Often, first-generation students don’t realize how many of their peers are also the first in their families to attend. First-generation can easily be an invisible identity.

In the U.S., November 8 is National #CelebrateFirstGen Day. Last year, to celebrate, we shared this article with you, in which our staff offered advice for other first-generation students. This year, we wanted to reach out to ask our colleagues at several universities what they are doing both to support their first-generation students and to communicate (on this day and others) that they do belong here. Here are four examples we gathered for you!

River Hawk Scholars at The University of Massachusetts Lowell

Julie Nash, the vice provost of undergraduate studies and student success, explains: “To help support our many first-generation college students, UMass Lowell created the River Hawk Scholars Academy, an academic and social support program for students who identify as first-generation. We provide holistic support, academic resources, formal mentoring programs and leadership opportunities to RHSA students as they transition from high school to a diverse college campus and learn what it means to be a college student. At the end of our Welcome day, dozens of faculty and staff showed in RHSA T-shirts to send new students the message that ‘You belong here!’”

You First at Virginia Commonwealth University

Daphne Rankin, associate vice provost, tells the story of how VCU is bringing visibility to their first-generation students:

“In recognition of this year's National First-Generation College Celebration Day, You First at VCU kicked off the celebration on Tuesday, November 5th. Students gathered at First Tuesdays with You First to discuss the importance of networking with VCU Career Services, network with each other, and write thank-you postcards to VCU community members who have encouraged them during their time at the university. These cards will be delivered on November 8th, National First-Generation Celebration Day.

“For the 2019 celebration, You First at VCU created t-shirts for first-generation students, faculty, and staff to wear in a large group photo which will be taken beside our emblematic "Ram Horns" sculpture. The ram symbolizes commitment and determination, characteristics for which first-gen students are known. The photograph will be shared across the campus community to bring visibility to the first-gen identity and to show students that although it can feel like they are navigating college on their own at times, they are in fact widely supported and they absolutely belong here.

"VCU also provides support classes for families of first-gen students. These classes cover such topics as how to best support your student, support programs that exist for students, and financial aid."

First to Go at Loyola Marymount University

According to Thomas Gutto, the director of transfer admission and enrollment services, “The First To Go, First-Year Scholars Program at LMU is a year-long commitment that commences with a week-long orientation before the start of the academic year, and is closely followed by concurrent courses in both the Fall and Spring semester. Courses, include 'Orientation to Learning' (Fall and Spring), 'Rhetorical Arts,' and 'First-Year Seminar.' 'Orientation to Learning' courses are one-unit seminars dedicated to exploring the first-gen college student experience, while Rhetorical Arts and First-Year Seminar are LMU core courses taught by faculty who were also first generation college students.

"Similar to the First-Year Scholars Program, our Transfer Scholars share similar requirements including completion of “Orientation to Learning,” and involvement in transfer-student centered programming throughout the academic year.

"Both First Year and Transfer Scholars Program students are paired with student and faculty mentors, and are encouraged to take part in travel opportunities, publishing opportunities, and a host of workshops and events to ensure the best possible LMU experience."

A First-Gen Faculty Campaign at El Camino College

Faculty coordinator Cynthia Mosqueda shared with us: "In the spring of 2018, El Camino College launched the First-Gen Institute on campus to increase awareness. Close to 51% of first-time El Camino College students are first-gen students.

"Phase one of our initiative, the 'First-Gen Faculty Campaign,' launched on Friday, April 27, 2017. It brought together leading scholars from UCLA, CSUDH, CSULB, and USC to kick off our First-Gen Faculty Institute. The conference covered topics that many of our first-gen students experience such as academic imposter syndrome, hidden curriculum, and first-gen intersectionality.

"Faculty professional development has been instrumental in creating a culture that welcomes and celebrates first-gen students. Close to 30% of El Camino College faculty also identify as first in their family to earn a degree from a four-year institution."

What is Your College or University Doing?

What we love about these four examples is that the programs supporting first-gen students at these institutions are integrative—they walk the talk of involving first-gen students deeply in the programs and curricular and co-curricular experiences that students who aren’t the first in their families to attend often already know to seek out. These programs also fully engage first-gen faculty, so that students can see that many of their own professors were first generation students themselves.

What is your institution doing to celebrate its first-generation population and help them in attaining their degrees? If you have an innovative program or a practice your peers at other institutions could learn from, contact us at elizabeth@academicimpressions.com. We’d love to talk with you!

Online Trainings You Might Enjoy

Engaging and Celebrating First-Generation Students and Faculty on Your Campus | Recorded Webcast

Retaining First-Generation Students: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond | Bundle: 2 Recorded Webcasts

Engaging First-Gen Families to Drive Student Success | Recorded Webcast

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Image credit: Photo above by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash.