I’m First: SMC Celebrates National First-Generation College Day

HP students celebrate First Gen DayOn Nov. 8, colleges across the country celebrated National First-Generation College Day, which honors the achievements of first-generation students, staff, and faculty. This is the first year Saint Mary’s joined the celebration: 35 students from the High Potential (HP) program gathered for an evening of festivity, connection, and deep discussions about the first-generation experience.

The HP program provides access to higher education for dedicated students from traditionally underrepresented groups and fosters student success as they transition from high school to college. The program provides support for approximately 160 students from just prior to the first year of college through the completion of their baccalaureate degrees.

Director of SMC’s High Potential program and TRIO Student Support Services Jenee Palmer used National First-Generation College Day as the first of many events to help unify the first-generation SMC campus community. “This is the first time that we’re acknowledging and celebrating this on campus, and I hope that this can be a jumping-off point to really bring the first-generation community together. That includes staff, faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students—because being first gen doesn’t just end; it’s an identity that you keep as you move through the world, and so we hope to use it as a unifying force for events moving forward.”

While the term first gen may seem self-explanatory, it includes a vast web of definitions. Traditionally, first gen may have referred only to students who are the first in their family to attend college, but the term has broadened to include those whose parents never attended a four-year university, did not complete college, or did not attend college in the United States. The Center for First-Generation Student Success says, “Ultimately, the term first generation implies the possibility that a student may lack the critical cultural capital necessary for college success because his/her parents did not attend college.”

While first-generation students are often driven, dedicated, and resourceful, these same students are more likely to experience challenges that include difficulty navigating the complexities of financial aid and trouble balancing campus, work, and home life. Or they may lack a network of connections in a desired field. These factors can lead to a lack of confidence and feeling like they don’t belong (aka Imposter Syndrome), and increase the chances of the student’s withdrawing from college. Given the challenges first gens face, bonding with other first-gen students, staff, and faculty helps build a solid support system to gain better understanding of the first-generation student experience.

On First-Gen Day, students proudly wore their “I’m First” pins and broke out into group Q&A sessions, then shared stories about their first-gen experiences. A student HP leader shared, “The beauty of first gen is that we go through a lot of experiences that many other people don’t understand, and I think it’s super important that we talk about it and have a space to talk about those things. I think a challenge that I have faced is not having the resources that other people have. ...I didn’t have the money to pay someone to show me how to take the SATs. I just had to go with what I know. The way I kind of overcame that was going online myself and finding free practice tests. It makes you more resourceful, as a first-gen student, and the fact that we go through these obstacles and these different challenges shows how much we really want this, how dedicated we are to this, and how powerful we really are if we’re willing to go through all of it.”

Another student shared, “Explaining to my parents certain things, like how financial aid works, what steps to take—it just really didn’t make sense for them. Explaining, ‘Yes guys, I do have to spend all these hours on homework because that’s how college works.’ ‘Yes, I have to spend $200 on a book for this class.’ To other families, it might seem like common knowledge, but for [my] family, it’s a whole new experience for them...and that can be frustrating.”

Palmer ended the evening by explaining the goal of first-gen and HP events. “I hope the HP program first and foremost gets students to recognize the incredible strength that they bring to this space. I hope we can acknowledge the challenges that we have as a community and that individual students have, but also recognize how strong they are, and the power they have in this community. I want to…create a sense of community for first-gen students where they are able to feel deeply connected to Saint Mary’s, to other people who have similar experiences to them, so they stay and graduate—because that is what they deserve.”