Celebrating First-Gen Students at Longwood University
Wade Edwards, Longwood University / The Center / January 23, 2024
The story Alejandra Campoverdi recounts in her memoir, First Gen, is a story whose broad stokes are recognizable to anyone who has assumed the role of the family trailblazer. Raised as the only child of an immigrant mother, Campoverdi emphasizes the complex and uncertain identities she juggled as the first in her family to pursue a college education. Describing her life as an undergraduate, she notes how unsure she always felt and how mysterious her world seemed even to herself. She catalogs multiple layers of angst: “the rush to outpace [her] lack of belonging. The unacknowledged isolation. The terror [she] swallowed down along with aspiration and ambition. The eternal outsider status. And the responsibility [she] still felt to use [her] life as a mechanism to make [her] family’s sacrifices worth it.” Isolation, terror, aspiration, ambition, responsibility to those back home: these experiences are well-known to many first-generation students even if they haven’t lived the remarkable trajectory Campoverdi describes.
Campoverdi’s recent publication served as a timely backdrop for Longwood University’s First-Generation Celebration on November 8. On a sunny afternoon in the center of campus, members of the faculty and staff First-Gen Student Success Working Group honored members of the community by distributing stickers, coffee, and buttons proclaiming “Proud to be a First-Gen Student.” Similar buttons saying “Ask Me about My First-Gen Experience” were also available for faculty and staff allies. As students filtered in and out of the university’s dining hall, they were able to add their name and class year to a copy of First Gen which will be archived in the university’s special collections. A drawing was also held for three (fresh) copies of the book.
In a meaningful display of visibility and belonging, students used a rolling whiteboard to respond to the prompt: “I am proud to be a first-generation Lancer because…” Many of their impromptu reflections captured the themes of personal aspiration and family responsibility described by Campoverdi:
• I want my little sister to have someone to look up to.
• I’m breaking generational curses.
• To make my family proud and reach my dreams.
• To make a good life for myself.
• To make a new chapter in my family story.
• To show myself and all the people that doubted me that I can achieve good things.
• To show that I’m capable and that the rest of my family is too.
One student wrote simply: “This is all for my mom.”
About twenty-seven percent of Longwood University’s undergraduate population identifies as first-generation, and programming on campus has increased following the COVID-19 pandemic to serve this group. Along with efforts to mark National First-Gen Celebration Day on November 8, the Working Group also recently hosted a presentation on “imposter syndrome” by Dr. Evan Long, a professor of education and a first-generation student and ally. During graduation weekend last May, the university held its first commencement ceremony for first-generation students and their families at the historic Robert Moton Museum, a university-affiliated landmark and the site of a student strike in 1951 that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which confirmed the value of public education for all.
As we seek to support and celebrate Longwood University’s first-gen students, we hope to empower them to honor their background and experience, to recognize their fundamental worth to the campus community, to anticipate and manage inevitable challenges, and to follow in the footsteps of pioneers such as Alejandra Campoverdi.