“The journey is often followed by a lot of sweat and tears, and the constant struggle to stay above water while everyone else is simply floating.”
- Diana Hernandez ‘21
Your first semester in college is always rough. It’s nothing like high school; everything isn’t done for you. Yes, you get freedom, but with that comes more responsibility. This might shock some students when they first join a college community, but with the right resources and guides, freshman year can be less stressful.
Now, imagine coming to campus with no previous knowledge on anything “college.” Imagine stepping onto one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, treading territory that has never before been navigated by either of your parents. Now, imagine being surrounded by people who have totally different experiences from you, constantly hearing personal stories about college and receiving assistance with their college applications from their parents. Feeling overwhelmed? Well, this is the experience of numerous first generation students when they first arrive to campus.
At Claremont McKenna College, ranked #7 in National Liberal Arts Colleges on US News, approximately 18% of the student body are first-generation college students, meaning they are the first in their immediate family to attend college. Their status as a first-generation student presents these students with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pave a path for themselves and their future families. Nevertheless, many of these students still face obstacles before and after arriving to campus.
One preliminary obstacle many first-gen students face is having limited access to information about the college and the application process. Additionally, interacting with students who have college educated parents can be a bit challenging because of the different mindsets established from both experiences. Ultimately, the first-gen experience is still an existing challenge for many students. We must understand the contrast between first gen students and their counterparts in order to better grasp how life is different for first-generation college students.
It is always a struggle for any college applicant to identify a good fit and an affordable option. However, for first-generation college students, it can be even more challenging because they often lack family members with enough knowledge on the college application process to assist them.
Salomé Lefort ‘21, discussed her experience as a first-generation student at CMC, stating that “it was very hard because not only am I a first-generation student, but I am an immigrant to this country, so I wasn't able to look to my parents for help. I wasn't coached very well on where to apply and how many schools to apply to. So a lot of the process was done by my mom and I on random websites. I was very lucky to stumble upon CMC!”
It seems to be a pattern of many first-generation students to state that they were “lucky” to have found their school, their scholarship or their scholar program. Many students in this position with limited familial guidance are often aided the most by these outside sources. Counselors, for example, sometimes are the push factor that motivate many first-generation students to step out of their comfort zone and do what their parents didn’t have the privilege to: pursue higher education.
“I was fortunate enough to be a part of a first-generation scholarship program in my high school,” Jen Petrova ‘19 said. “The Schuler Scholarship Program gave me the academic and financial support I needed to be able to apply to colleges. Without their constant education, help, and guidance, I do not know if I could have found myself at a private, liberal arts college,” she said. The Schuler Scholarship Program exposed Jen to academic opportunities and educated her on how she could obtain them. Petrova considers herself one of the lucky ones. However, a students’ future shouldn’t be based on “luck,” because all students should have the same access to resources necessary to make informed choices.
It is important to note and consider that many first-generation students, though not all, have parents who are immigrants to the U.S. Therefore, their expectations for education are usually high. One could argue that their path to success is not often due to luck, but due to the motivation of fulfilling their parent’s goals. Many immigrant parents moved to this country to set a path for their children. Petrova can say that her parents wanted her to have the American Dream. They wanted her to do what they couldn’t in their country, and set a good example for her sister. Therefore, there is a lot more at stake for first-gen students. For some, pursuing higher education is an expectation in their family. Not going to college means that all the trouble and hardships that their family has undergone would result in the opposite of what they hoped for their children. The expectations are all on the student: they are the generation to change the impact of education in their family.
There is also the question of what resources and guidance are provided for first-generation students when they finally arrive to campus.
Figuring out the college application on their own was only the first step. Now, they have to navigate their first year on a campus that is different than high school. All the new rules and expectations can be overwhelming. The difference between them and those that aren’t first-generation is that they don’t have easy access to advising on navigating this new territory of life. Lefort, having experienced this feeling first-hand, noted how lost she felt during her first-year.
“One of the funniest stories I have is when I first arrived to college, I got a concussion and school-wise it wasn't going very well,” said Lefort. “ Someone had given me the advice of going there and talking to a dean. I was confused and so I called my mom and I asked her, ‘Hey mom, what is a dean? What do they do?’ And she just responds, ‘I have no idea.’ If she didn't know, how will I know?” This became a learning experience for Lefort, as she realized she needed to overcome her fear of reaching out to resources on campus for help.
To combat the issue of limited resources for first-generation students at CMC, a group of first-generation students—Rafael Velasco ’19, Tony Chau ‘19, Devang Patel ‘19 and Tre Gonzales ‘19—created a club called 1Gen. The club provides resources to first-generation students in various ways, including arranging workshops for professional development and inviting 1Gen alumni to offer guidance. Ultimately, the club establishes a safe place at CMC for 1Gen students to discuss their experiences and build community.
Last year, on November 8th, 2018, CMC celebrated National First Gen Day for the first time in its history. This day, created by the Council for Opportunity in Education in 2017, calls for universities all over the U.S. to celebrate first-generation college students on campus. Many campuses and communities are too often blind to the academic capabilities and gifts that lie dormant within so many first-generation students. This year, CMC students decided to overcome this stigma and celebrated these strong-willed students on our campus and showcase what it means to be first-gen on our campus. The private liberal arts college decided to address the issues and challenges faced by first-gen students. 1Gen leaders spearheaded this operation, illustrating CMC’s commitment to support 1Gen students.
Other than providing an open-space for discussion, the day gave a sense of pride to many. Various students on campus proudly proclaimed themselves as first-generation students and embraced this part of their identity. Diana Hernandez ‘21, a first-generation student who attended most of the events on this special day, expressed how the celebration made her feel.
“Sometimes we feel as if we don’t belong at these private institutions. People see us and underestimate our capabilities, but forget that we didn’t get here by chance. We were meant to be here. We are thriving and nothing will impede us from doing so,” Hernandez said.
1Gen also arranged events such as a class-registration drop-in event, which allowed for upperclassmen to help first-year students plan their schedule as they approached the dreadful day of class-registration. There also was a TNC and mixer, which allowed for the mingling of first-generation students from all the 5C’s. The club even planned a Friendsgiving, where the community and its allies ate delicious food, expressed what they were thankful for, and played ice-breakers. Some stated how they were thankful for the 1Gen community at CMC.
Essentially, 1Gen has allowed for CMC to be a place that equips first-gen with the right resources to guide them through these challenging 4 years. The celebration of National First Generation day on November 8th allowed for first-gen students to celebrate their success as the first in their family to attend college and to acknowledge the guidance and resources available to them here.
According to Lefort, “I do think there is a good amount of resources afforded to us, but I feel that they weren’t evident enough or talked about among our community enough my first year as they may be now.”
Jen Petrova ‘19, a member and mentor for 1Gen, mentioned how the resources have grown significantly since her freshman year, and now as a senior, “she feels perfectly equipped to academically, financially, and socially thrive at this elite, private, liberal arts college. It is a liberating feeling to feel as though you are not thrown into an atmosphere that does not advocate for your success.”
However, even when students are provided with the means to succeed on this campus, there will always be a sense of isolation from those who don’t identify similarly to you. Definitely, there are little to no discussions with people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and no one really discusses how to be an ally to those of marginalized identities. Instead of allowing for a sense of inclusiveness on campus, at times there seems to be one of isolation.
1Gen has grown increasingly in number and events over the years. They are making strides to reduce this feeling of isolation by hosting discussions and acknowledging these communities.
Lefort recounted how she did not truly feel like a first generation student until she got on campus and experienced severe symptoms of imposter syndrome. “When we moved me into college, it was very evident there was a lot I didn't know and I felt somewhat out of place at first which is something I didn't expect,” said Lefort.
Placide Gatabazi ‘21 also spoke about how he felt like an outlier as a first-generation international student. “[Coming from Rwanda,] a major difference that I felt between me as a first-gen and international student and my peers was the financial capability,” Gatabazi said. “While others may choose to have dinner or lunch in the village as often as they want, I cannot do the same because I’m on a tight budget. Also, I get money to buy all my supplies and textbooks from on-campus jobs while some of my peers don’t have to work to buy what they need on a day-to-day basis.”
This disparity between first-generation students and students with college educated parents is a common phenomenon within top private liberal arts schools like CMC. With this in mind, the first year for a first-gen student can be a completely different experience than that of a student with college educated parents. Their experience, however, allows them to independently foster growth in themselves and effectively aid those who will follow in their footsteps. Lefort, Gatabazi, and Petrova are some of these students, who can say they successfully completed their first year at CMC, regardless of the hardships. Now, they are willing to give advice to those students who are following in their footsteps, and to those experiencing exactly what they went through.
“If a first-year student were to ask me how in the world I got through my first semester, I would tell them to push yourself to constantly ask for help and learn to advocate for yourself,” Lefort said. “I was so intimidated by professors and deans so I ended up not going to them when I really should have, so do not make my mistakes and go talk to people!”
Petrova reiterated Lefort’s point of not being afraid to ask for help.
“First, always ask for help! Do not be afraid to reach out to friends, professors, trusted adults. The playing field doesn’t start equal, it is up to us to ensure we get to the same level, and nobody can do that alone. And second, don’t forget about your identity and family and friends from home. College will change you, but it is important to balance both identities,” Petrova said.
After high school is a crucial time for the shaping of identities. There is a variety of socioeconomic status, ethnicities, nationalities, races, religions, etc. Therefore, the pressure to shape your identity is high, and sometimes as students, we are inclined to forget where we come from. That’s why Petrova’s point of not forgetting your background and embracing your identity is essential to everyone on this campus. That’s why students should be encouraged to embrace their status as a first-generation student, as a low-income student, as a minority, as an international student… Embrace it and allow it to be the stepping stone to what will be a success story for years to come.
Being a first-generation student on this campus should not be overlooked. To understand the experiences of first-gen students can allow for the opening of doors of inclusiveness on campus. No longer should the journey be “followed by a lot of sweat and tears, and the constant struggle to stay above water while everyone else is simply floating,” Hernandez said.
To non-first generation students: take into consideration the experiences of those at this school. To first-generation students: go ahead and do you! Go from being a first-generation student to being a first-generation scholar.