A reception in Stokes Hall was part of a weeklong series of events celebrating first-generation students, sponsored by BC's First Generation Club in partnership with University's Learning to Learn office. (Lee Pellegrini)

Ask Jesse Rascon '19 about the First Generation Club, the student organization he founded during his time at Boston College, and he'll tell you how diverse the membership is: students of color; white students; international students; students who are children of immigrants, or are immigrants themselves.

"We could call it 'Little America,'" laughs Rascon, a history major with a minor in education. "In spite of our differences, we all come together."

The tie that binds them all? They are the first in their families to attend college.

A celebration of first-generation students on campus

'No one resource can help a first-generation student,' says Angela Zhang '20, president of BC's First Generation Club. "That's why it's important for different offices and programs, as well as facuty and administrators, to be aware of first-gens and our needs. Instead of having students feel scattered and alone, they need to feel part of a team." (Lee Pellegrini)

Rascon and his fellow club members collaborated with the University's Learning to Learn office on a weeklong series of events in November, held to celebrate the achivements of first-generation college students at BC and elsewhere. A reception in Stokes Hall near the end of the week provided an occasion for "first-gens" past and present to reflect on their experiences and the hard work and helping hands that made their college dreams come true.

"When we got to college, with the idea of becoming scientists, doctors, teachers, lawyers, we found people who believe in us," said Learning to Learn Director Rosanna Contreras-Godfrey, in her welcoming remarks. "This is a chance to embrace our tenacity and persistence, and that of our families."

A National Center for Education Statistics study found that nearly a quarter of high school sophomores in 2002 who went on to enroll in a postsecondary institution were first-generation students. BC has enrolled an average of about 260 first-generation undergraduate students during the past five years, including 263 in this year's freshman class. During the last decade, the percentage of first-gens in the freshman class has ranged from 9 to 11.

First-generation college students have long been the stuff of feel-good stories with classic dramatic elements: the parents' sacrifice to provide their child with the higher education they never had coupled with the students' detrmination to make the most of the opportunity. Boston College has been part of such narratives from its beginnings, when it was founded to educate Boston's premoninantly Irish, Catholic immigrant community.

But the story of first-gen students is complicated and multi-faceted. During their college years, they typically face educational, social, and economic challenges significantly different from those of their fellow undergraduates. College administrators seek to discern the needs of first-gen students and develop the appropirate programs, resources, and suppports, while researchers in academia, including at BC, study the changing profile of first-gen students in the wake of demographic trends and other factors.

 

Things just hit you sometimes. You're talking with a friend whose father teaches at Yale Law School one minute, and then you find out there were three cop cars in your neighborhood because a kid was killed in front of your house. Or that the meal plan on your card is enough to feed you for the semester, and some of your friends don't even have food in their house.
First Generation Club founder Jesse Rascon '19


All the while, Rascon and other first-gens continue to pursue that landmark college degree, grateful for the opportunity and those who are helping them seize it, yet mindful of the contrast their experiences and impressions present among BC students.

"Things just hit you sometimes," says Rascon, a Cuban-American Miami native. "You're talking with a friend whose father teaches at Yale Law School one minute, and then you find out there were three cop cars in your neighborhood because a kid was killed in front of your house. Or that the meal plan on your card is enough to feed you for the semester, and some of your friends don't even have food in their house. I've had an amazing time at BC, and people are incredibly friendly here, but it feels like a different world."

"As the oldest child, there's definitely a pressure to succeed: 'Don't let the family down,'" says First Generation Club president Angela Zhang, a Carroll School of Management junior from New Jersey whose parents, neither of whom completed middle schoool, emigrated from China to the U.S. when they were 18. "I remember feeling self-conscious as a kid about my parents no speaking English, but I also felt belittled if I heard someone criticizing them. Once I got older, I realized how much they went through for their children, working at a restaurant until 2 a.m.—my father was robbed one night during a delivery—and how much I learned from them. My parents trusted me when I handled the paperwork and other details for going to college, so I had to figure everything out on my own."

"It's not easy being a trailblazer. First-generation students come to campus with a general lack of savviness about higher education, and this manifests itself in navigating the everyday aspects of college, and seeking help for academic or personal issues. They may also have narrowly vocational ideas about higher education, and not even understand its vocabulary. One student who was asked about his interest in the liberal arts said 'I'm not liberal, and I don't want to study art.'
Lynch School of Education Associate Professor Karen Arnold

 

Such dynamics are critical to understanding college life for students like Rascon and Zhang, say Lynch School of Education Associate Professor Karen Arnold and her former student, University of Georgia doctoral candidate Jennifer May-Trifiletti '10, M.A.'11, both of whom have studied first-generation students. Identifying someone as a first-gen isn't enough, they say: You need to determine the "intersection" of other characteristics, such as family income level (which tends to be lower among first-gen students), primary languages spoken at home, and parents' marital status, as well as the family's cultural background and country of origin.

As Zhang's comment indicates, first-gen students may be the ones who take the lead in most, if not all, of college-related matters due to their parents' difficulties with English or general unfamiliarity with such processes. It's often a complicated, delicate turn in the parent-child relationship.

"My parents just didn't know about the American college system," says Lynch School graduate student Mitchell Strzepek, a resident director in Vanderslice Hall. "When we found a college to check out, we'd pack up the car and go there. But they had to trust me to be the leader, to ask the questions, get the information, fill out forms. So it was a real family effort."

But when nobody in your family has any familiarity with higher education, supposedly routine parts of college life may be baffling. "I didn't know at first what professors meant by 'office hours,'" says Rascon. "Are those the times when they want to be alone? What are you supposed to do at these office hours? What are they for, exactly?"

And however well-intentioned and supportive family is, as Zhang notes, they just can't relate to your situation. "Whenever my friends at BC had an issue, they could call their parents: 'Mom, Dad, I'm having a tough time with this paper, and I flunked my test.' But mine would say, 'Well, just study harder.' They weren't being mean: they just didn't know what else to say."

"It's not easy being a trailblazer," says Arnold. "First-generation students come to campus with a general lack of savviness about higher education, and this manifests itself in navigating the everyday aspects of college, and seeking help for academic or personal issues. They may also have narrowly vocational ideas about higher education, and not even understand its vocabulary. One student who was asked about his interest in the liberal arts said 'I'm not liberal, and I don't want to study art.'"

Given that studies show first-gens are less likely to complete a backelor's degree than are students who have a least one parent with post-secondary education experience, Arnold says it's inclumbent on colleges to be aware of these characteristics and go the extra mile in aiding the students' transition to college.

That's where key providers of support for first-gens at BC, such as Learning to Learn, the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, and University Mission and Ministry's Montserrat Coalition, come in, administering initiatives like Options Through Education, the College Transition Program, the Gateway Scholars Program, and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. Other resources include the Office of Graduate Student Life's Graduate Mentor Program; the Career Center, which has a website aimed at first-gens; and a series inaugurated in the spring of 2018 by William V. Campbell Director of Athletics  Martin Jarmond to enable first generation college students in the BC Athletics Department to cultivate connections, share experiences, and learn about campus resources.

But outside-the-classroom connections with faculty members are what first-gens, like most all students, particularly value. Once Rascon was clear about faculty office hours, he says, he would visit his Perspectives course professor once a week. Zhang, who had no idea what "networking" invovled, is grateful to Carroll School Associate Professor of Information Systems John Gallaugher, who put her in touch with his friends and colleagues.

"No one resource can help a first-generation student,' says Zhang. "That's why it's important for different offices and programs, as well as faculty and administrators, to be aware of first-gens and our needs. Instead of having students feel scattered and alone, they need to feel part of a team."

 

Sean Smith | University Communications