Building First-Generation Connections & Community
Christina Pantoja Williams, Millersville University of Pennsylvania / The Center / May 24, 2023
Right before the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm, a first-generation undergraduate college student at Millersville University named Kiara Guzman-Ramos was passionate about creating a first-generation student organization to unite and create community for students who are the first in their family to attend college. Kiara’s dedication to this initiative with the support of the office of student access and support services came to a reality when the organization First Gems of the Ville was created. Although the pandemic changed the way students connected and engaged with each other, Kiara served as the president of the organization and prepared and facilitated many online activities to keep students connected. Kiara stated, “creating a sense of belonging during and through the pandemic was very hard but it was absolutely necessary to first-generation student success.” With the help of many departments at Millersville University and the drive of an undergraduate student First Gems of the Ville has become an important piece of supporting first-generation students on campus and is currently one of the most active student organizations on Millersville University’s campus. This organization welcomes all students, hosts on and off campus events, and is active in the planning of the first-generation celebration that occurs in November. Because of the organizations desire to connect with other first-generation students across campus and first-generation faculty, staff, and administrators, the organization created and currently hosts a first-generation networking event. This event provides a space for first-generation individuals in the community to share their stories, connect with each other, and offer advice to current students on the university campus. It also provides an opportunity for first-generation students to network with higher education professionals in various departments and offices in order to build a community of support throughout the university campus.
Creating a sense of belonging during and through the pandemic was very hard but it was absolutely necessary to first-generation student success.
Engaging first-generation alumni to support current Millersville University first-generation college students has become an important strategy to student success, creating community, and first-generation student belonging. The networking event hosted by FirstGems of the Ville every year highlighted the importance of creating connections and opportunities for students to visualize what might be the next steps once they graduate from college. Providing first-generation students, the opportunity to connect with first-generation alumni that have similar lived experiences provides hope and a road map for success. The Associate Director of the office of student access and support services, Dr. Christina Pantoja Williams was able to solidify some funds from a grant to create a program known now as First-Gen Connect. First-Gen Connect is an opportunity for first-generation students at Millersville University to hear the stories of first-generation alumni, their strategies for navigating college, their experience with success and how they might have navigated some failures, and first-generation students learn about the alumnus’ current career profession. First-Gen Connect also provides first-generation college students at Millersville University the opportunity to eat in community with each other. Every first-generation student leaves the session with connections to someone within and outside of the Millersville community and student attending First-Gen Connect sessions also get a free gift to take with them to show their first-generation pride. Some examples of gifts are first-generation t-shirts, pins, water bottles etc.
The work at Millersville University to support first-generation students is growing and has flourished. It is our hope to grow the first-generation program fully within the next few years.