Celebrations for First-Gen Students Expand in Year Two - Higher Education
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Celebrations for First-Gen Students Expand in Year Two

by Lois Elfman

The Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), in partnership with the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA and The Suder Foundation, has announced the second annual First-Generation College Celebration.

Nov. 8 marks the 53rd anniversary of the 1965 signing of the Higher Education Act, which led to federally funded initiatives such as the TRIO programs, including Upward Bound and Student Support Services.

Maureen Hoyler, president of COE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering higher education opportunities for low-income, first-generation students, said she’s hoping to see wider participation in year two. Many colleges and universities will hold their events on Nov. 8, but seeking to up the impact, some institutions have multiple events planned.

“To celebrate those students and the contribution they bring to campuses is important,” said Hoyler. “First-gen faculty is the second thing we need to look at.”

Hoyler said many first-gen faculty have buried the characteristics of being first-gen in order to succeed in academia. Celebrating their backgrounds uplifts students and enlightens colleagues. Lastly, these celebrations spotlight first-gen issues for policy makers, such as trustees and legislators.

Cody Walker, a senior at the West Virginia University Institute of Technology, is looking forward to meeting other first-generation students, hearing their experiences and sharing his stories. In addition to a rally and reception open to everyone on campus, there will be a financial aid session with the topic “How to repay your student loans.” Both the president and provost of the university are first-gen, and Walker looks forward to getting advice from them.

Jourdan Staffier

“That shows I can get through whatever I’m going through,” said Walker, a civil engineering major.

Student Support Services provided Walker a professional tutor for his math courses, and he said without the tutor he would not have been able to achieve such good grades. He has also received information about financial aid and scholarships as well as help applying for scholarships

“I want to emphasize how important having a support system is to actually succeeding academically,” said Walker.

Louisiana State University (LSU) will have a first-gen week from Nov. 5 – 9 with events including a first-gen resource fair, a town hall, a lunch gathering with faculty and staff and a carnival. On Nov. 6, first-gen students will be recognized on the court at the women’s basketball home opener.

Jourdan Staffier, a junior biology major with an English minor at LSU was heavily involved in planning the first-gen festivities.

“The town hall event is also going to be an ice cream social,” said Staffier, who is utilizing social media to get LSU students excited. “In first-gen week and in my department in student government, our goal is to bring together these underrepresented students who are looking for a community. We love bringing people out who might not have anyone because they’re first-gen students.”

Jamiri Brown

Jamiri Brown, a McNair Scholar at LSU, grew up in a town of less than 6,000. A biology major and psychology minor who plans to become a genetic counselor, Brown said the opportunity to be involved in innovative research at LSU has created her life’s path. Several family members suffer from hereditary conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and she wants to be part of changing that pattern for her family and others.

“A lot of people have made a village to help me through this process,” said Brown, who regularly interacts with LSU’s diverse first-gen students.

Kyle Ethelbah

Kyle Ethelbah, director of TRIO programs at  University of Utah, is first-gen himself. He grew up on an Apache reservation in Arizona, raised by his grandmother after his mother died and his father was incarcerated. He took part in Upward Bound and Student Support Services and is the board chair-elect of COE.

“For me, these celebrations are really personal,” Ethelbah said. “In the absence of individuals who could guide me, these programs helped steer me in the right direction.

“I value the opportunities these programs can give to our students … and the impact this process has on them and their self-actualization,” he continued. “They can go forward and help their communities.”

COE and NASPA have created a website that provides suggestions for activities, forums, panel discussions and talking points. In anticipation of the First-Generation College Celebration, individuals are encouraged to share plans and inspirational messages on social media using the hashtag #CelebrateFirstGen. Members of Congress from both political parties have prepared videos for the COE YouTube page with their personal experiences and words of encouragement.

“It’s really important to understand this is not a one-party affair,” said Hoyler. “This is a public good that if presented in the right fashion, people will desire not only for their own family, but for the next generation.”

 

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