First Gen Programs – Not to be looked down on…..

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By Pamela Baker, Independent Admissions Consultant, Right College Choice

On the first day of my son’s freshman year I reported to a classroom full of parents by following instructions on the card I received in the mail.  I was glad to see the mom I had just met had followed the same instructions.  We heard another mom say “we’re not poor, why are we here?  We have a house and we both work and I have good credit.  I don’t want people to think we’re poor.”   We looked at each other with confusion as if to say–what is wrong with her and why is she saying that?  The only difference we could see was that she was not the parent of an underrepresented student.  My friend and I concurred that indeed we were hardworking people who owned our homes too so we were all basically the same.  We decided to just sit quietly and ponder her words while patiently awaiting the program to begin.   In walked a petite woman with a big voice who started with a very impressive introduction.  Through all the wonderful things she had to say, the main thing that stood out to me was the fact that our students were invited to participate to take advantage of many resources offered and then she thanked us for accepting the invitation.

This is one of several stories I’ve heard when it comes to guidance programs offered on college campuses for first generation students.  In many cases, transfer students are also encouraged to participate in these programs.   Regardless of how we truly define it, every year thousands of high school graduates lack the knowledge of and access to valuable resources to help them become successful in college.   Getting students accepted to college sometimes can be a major accomplishment in and of itself, however, it just doesn’t stop there.  The main focus and/or goal of these programs is to provide support throughout their collegiate journey.

I know a young Latino girl named Amanda who began her college career immersed in a first gen program and because of the support she received and the confidence built, she has pursued leadership roles and is a proud college junior still going strong.  These programs remove the fear of becoming lost in the crowd or the confusion in understanding the layout of the campus.  Additionally, these programs place first gen students on a level playing field that helps cultivate the assimilation into the college culture.  Confidence building and gaining independence seem to come quickly anytime a student feels included.

My son, a 2015 graduate of Santa Clara University, was considered a first fen student because although I had taken many college courses by the time he was accepted into college, I had yet to complete my degree.  Switching reels for a moment, I am happy to report that while he was in college I did buckle down and complete my degree in 2014 putting a smile on my face and my son’s face too.  SCU invited him to participate in the Lead Scholars program for first gen students; giving him priority class registration, early move-in and specific planned activities throughout all four years of college.  Additionally, Lead Scholars included a unique family component as a way for parents to help support their students.  Parents are allowed to learn more about the college experience by attending class lectures, sporting events and planned family dinners.  I watched my son immerse himself in the program and ultimately become a leader.  Because of the Lead Scholars program, he didn’t spend his first year trying to figure it all out.  Instead, he fit right in immediately and hit the ground running.

As many of you know, these wonderful college support programs even begin during the summer providing a head start in adjusting to the demands of college coursework.  This is a time when students discover self-advocacy and how resources help support their college success.   For example, Cornell’s Prefreshman Summer Program is a 6-week program that allows first gen students to take classes that give an overview of coursework they should expect in college with some of the classes fulfilling undergrad requirements.

In the end, we should never assume that all will learn, grow and adjust in the same way.  We as counselors, research and give our all with every bit of information we can find so that every student is on the right track and that’s when we truly succeed.  So let’s not forget that in order to affect change, we must first research first gen programs with the same fervor as creating a balanced college list prior to the senior year crunch.  Stirring up interest in these programs can only add excitement when colleges are courting our students for admissions.

It is encouraging to now learn that because of the success of first gen programs, administrators are now discussing the inclusion of these programs for 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students in the very near future; I can now see first gen students breaking glass ceilings!

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