• Olivia Wong

Creation of a First-Generation College Community

A Jefferson RoundTable, “First-Gen College Student Call-to-Action Panel,” on February 24, 2022 was hosted by Kaitlyn Viola, a fourth-year Law and Society major, to spark a conversation about the challenges faced by first-generation college students. As one herself, Viola’s introduction to the topic was deeply personal and her passion for improving conditions for students enduring the same experiences was shared with many other speakers and faculty during the Zoom meeting.

The majority is not even aware of the definition of a first-generation college student, but in the context of this Roundtable, it is anyone who is the first of their family to attend a four-year university. This may seem like just another label for college students, but in reality, this classification comes with so many financial issues, mental health crises, social & cultural confusion, and unforeseen situations that there is a pressing and urgent need for university-sponsored support. Speakers Leslie Dorantes, Aliyah McLaurin, and Bendriel Oniyama spoke of their similar plight during their college years as first-gen students with a heavy emphasis on feelings of guilt, hyper-independence, and imposter syndrome. As the first people in their families to achieve higher education, the pressure to maintain that sense of pride and do everything right can be exhausting. Since they have little to no guidance while in school, feelings of burnout and incompetence may arise because many do not have a support system or easy access to counseling services. In addition, cultural upbringing for many first-gen immigrant students has had an effect on people’s outlooks on dealing with hardships, such as feeling like one cannot speak up without experiencing crippling shame and insecurity.

Dorantes, a fourth-year Law and Society major, mentioned her struggle with these emotions as she explained that knowing her parents and relatives could not achieve their dreams meant that the expectations for her success were sky-high. As a representative for her Latin community, she expresses, “This is about everyone else who looks like you.” While recognizing Jefferson University’s current efforts to provide support, she suggested hiring a more diverse staff, including professors and counselors, in order to expand resources from being “internal and invisible” and to open up the conversation to include other minorities as well. Megan Donnelly, a student success and outreach librarian at Jefferson’s own Paul J. Gutman Library, expressed that she believed “there is strength in vulnerability” and she appreciated that Viola and the panelists brought this important conversation to the table. As a librarian on campus, she wanted it to be known that there are “course reserves” behind the circulation desk for students who may not be able to afford textbooks and that she is an active resource for anyone in need of help.

Thomas Jefferson University alum McLaurin shared similar sentiments about imposter syndrome and “chronic self-doubt.” With a $2,000 tuition bill, she noticed how many of her peers did not have to worry about financial issues or work study, but her situation called for paying her way through college completely on her own. Although $2,000 may not even seem like a lot of money to others, multiple work studies and off-campus jobs were barely enough to cover her bills, something she did not realize would happen coming into college. During her time at Jefferson University, she felt like “people did not care if she stayed or left” because of the lack of resources and support groups. McLaurin emphasized the need for the mere awareness of this community on campus and proposed an option to check off the first-generation status on the form to apply to Jefferson in the first place. In addition, the creation of an on-campus club dedicated to helping people like her would allow them to open up and take advantage of networking and connections this community would provide. During monthly board meetings, the inclusion of faculty who are first-gen themselves would help students to discuss funding, search for opportunities for internships, and attend financial information sessions. Professor Ahmad Qais Munhazim at Jefferson shared that as a first-gen student, they applied to one law school because they could not afford the application fee, and “was lucky to get in.” They adamantly agreed that the establishment of this community and board of first-gen members would greatly improve conditions, lessen anxiety, and provide resources for current students looking to further their careers.

Oniyama, another TJU alum and founding president of the Law and Society Honor Society, considered how her identity as a first-generation student affected life after her four years as an undergraduate. Deciding to go to graduate school and finding the funds to even apply was daunting and seemed impossible, and like the other speakers before her, she found it difficult to consider her own happiness and mental health while struggling to bear the brunt of her family’s hopes on her shoulders. Oniyama encouraged the addition of a First Year Seminar (FYS) class dedicated to first-generation students so that they can receive the information about scholarships, federal loans, and next steps to graduate school that others might take for granted. Chancellor Willie McKether, another former first-gen college student, identified with these speakers, explaining,

“It was our job to get here. We had no idea what it takes to stay.”

He was happy to introduce Dean Henry Humphreys’ program to assist incoming and current first-gen students at Jefferson to make a successful transition into college, including a coach to help navigate inadvertently hidden resources.

Other faculty members, including but not limited to Dean Gerald Grunwald, Dean Barbara Klinkehammer, Professor Evan Laine, Director Everette Nichols, and Professor Nioka Wyatt all expressed their interest in joining the initiative to provide first-generation students with the proper and necessary assistance to stay in school and advance their futures.

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