First time at the Institute on First-Generation College Students

Jennifer Schoen M.Ed., Northeastern University / The Center / August 06, 2018

NU Torch Students

You may think you know a lot about first-generation students, but trust me when I say that a trip to the Institute on First-Generation College Students will blow your mind!

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Columbia, South Carolina (“Famously Hot” is their truthful tagline), and I have turned to my binder full of first-generation information daily. I have shamelessly stolen two handouts meant for working with parents and re-purposed them for use in mentor training. And the assessment workshop alone - with the one slide on verbs that define stages in the cognitive process? Absolutely worth its weight in gold!

The Institute is a small conference of 100 participants, participants with the goal of improving the college experience (and graduation rate!) of students who are first-generation. If you’re wondering about the definition of who is a first-generation college student, know that research was presented on what definitions were used across the college landscape, with robust discussions on the impact that definition can have at your institution. Define it one way, and you may have hundreds of first-generation students on your campus; define it another way and you may have just a handful.

A few of my favorite workshops included “how-to’s” on involving faculty and staff in supporting first-generation students, involving families in supporting their students’ education, and information on how to assess whether or not your programs are accomplishing your goals. Choosing just three favorites is difficult as each workshop included program implementation ideas and examples, research, humor, and the wealth of experience of the exceptional presenters.

My takeaways included all of the presentation material and the small moments that reminded me of why I do the work I do.

It's Gabriella’s comment during the student panel when asked about getting to college: “It’s not “I made it!” It’s “I’m getting started!” Reminding me of the strengths of grit and resilience our students possess and how we need to help them recognize and realize these strengths.

It's the quote from Engstrom and Tinto (2008), “Access without support is not opportunity,” a reminder of my responsibility to address institutional barriers in policies and programs that create unnecessary hardships for first-generation students, work that is ongoing and important. Many of my colleagues shared stories of their success and struggles in this area that added fresh insight.

It's in the sharing of a way to re-focus how students think about choosing a major and career by asking the question, “what problem do you want to solve?” (or “how do you want to make a difference?”). Questions like these broaden students’ perspectives on what they might choose to study and what careers might best suit their knowledge, values, and skills.

The Institute is more than the sum of the workshops and the excellent presenters. It’s about being with people who want to celebrate the joy of working with first-generation students, who came to learn and to share their experiences, and leaving rejuvenated, with new connections, AND a binder of full of awesome information!

I am grateful to the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and the Center for First-generation Student Success for this meaningful opportunity.