By Maham Ali
Many colleges and universities are struggling to meet the needs of shifting student demographics. As a first-generation college student, my needs were different from a student whose parents have been to college. A first-generation college student is defined as a student whose parent(s)/ legal guardian(s) have not completed a Bachelor’s degree and they will be among the first in their family to do so. I often questioned myself about what I could have done differently: Should I have started planning for college sooner? What are my career goals? What resources did I miss out on? I realized that if I needed help answering these questions, there had to be other students who needed help, too. I made it my mission to address the needs of the growing first-generation student population at Carthage by creating my own organization.
Ellie Cahue, a first-generation college student, provides some insight into the problems facing these students. She said, “From a young age, I have valued my education as a path to success for me.” Her parents encouraged her to go to college, but were unable to support her through the application and financial process. Despite Ellie’s hardships, she has remained on the Dean’s list every semester. She cites that her “biggest achievement in life is being able to attend college and study something [graphic design] that makes me happy.”
A National Center for Education Statistics report comparing high school and postsecondary experiences of first-generation and continuing-generation college students followed a group of high school sophomores in the year 2002. "Fifty-four percent who were first-generation were not able to complete college because “they could not afford to continue going to school.”
Carrie Espinosa, Director of Student Success at Carthage College, encourages prospective students to ask, “Do they [the institution] provide specific programming for firstgeneration students and other student populations with specific needs? Are there grants and scholarships devoted to these groups? Student organizations? Web pages?” citing that “institutions that mean it, show it.” The U.S Department of Education report on First-Generation Students College Access, Persistence, and PostBachelor’s Outcomes reports that “3 years after beginning college, proportionally fewer first-generation students stayed on the persistence track (48%) than did their continuing-generation peers whose parents had received a Bachelor’s degree (67%).”
If you're a first generation college student who wants to start an organization at your college, here are some tips on what to do first:
1. Start conversations with your friends, classmates, advisors, and faculty about your experience(s). By doing so, you can organize support for creating your own program or organization.
2. Think about a mission statement: What does your program or organization hope to accomplish?
3. Write a plan. What type of events are needed? How much time is it going to take to organize? What are the roles and responsibilities of those involved?
4. Reach out to someone like the Director of Student Involvement or Campus Activities to develop an action plan and make it official!