When Life Gives You Lemons, You Make Lemonade: Overcoming Challenges to Support First-gen Students in a Pandemic

Shelby J. Harris, Ph.D. & Phillip Begeal, University of Massachusetts Boston / The Center / February 03, 2021

The University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston), the only public, four-year institution in the city of Boston, was recently recognized as the third most diverse college in the United States. We are proud to serve students of all backgrounds and even more proud that almost 60% of our undergraduates identify as first-generation (first in their family to earn a bachelor’s degree). We began the process of becoming a First-gen Forward Institution to identify best practices for serving our first-gen population and to learn from our peers.

A month after being accepted into the 2020-21 First-gen Forward cohort, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. UMass Boston went fully remote in March 2020, and with the exception of a handful of classes and residential students, has remained remote for the current 2020-2021 academic year. With the pandemic, students faced new challenges related to their financial and emotional well-being. As the lockdown continued, first-gen students faced increased isolation and less access to the faculty, staff, and fellow students who served as their critical support network.

We needed to act…and act quickly to help our students in need. The following are some highlights of our efforts to help the first gen population.

Spring 2020
  • Our RESPOND program provided a lifeline by matching students with peer coaches to help them succeed remotely. To date, over 1,100 students have used the program.

  • We created a laptop loan program to provide much needed technology for students to participate in remote learning off campus and increased IT support for students with technology questions.

  • Our team worked to ensure CARES Act funding was distributed to those in need. This aided all eligible students in being able to learn in the new remote modality.

As the lockdown continued, first-gen students faced increased isolation and less access to the faculty, staff, and fellow students who served as their critical support network.

Fall 2020
  • Our First-gen Forward Task Force reflected on what worked in the spring and identified opportunities to deliver existing programs in a more robust and intentional online format. This included a fully online curriculum for our Student Support Services Program, which serves almost 500 first generation students each year.

  • We continued to host “First Gen Celebration Week” which offered activities both remotely and in our residence halls, including a virtual panel of first-generation student leaders, a podcast, giveaways in our residence halls, and an Instagram live session with our Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.

  • Our New Student Programs Office offered several online workshops to engage with new first-generation students and their families on topics including financial aid, mental health, and academic success in the remote environment.

While it may be difficult to quantify the specific impact of the pandemic on our first-generation students, we will continue to find innovative ways to engage and support this population. We are eagerly looking forward to getting back to “normal” and welcoming students to campus and continuing the expansion of first-gen programs. Most of all, we are excited to once again celebrate and honor our graduating first-generation students as they conclude their UMass Boston experience and begin the next chapter of their lives.

For more information on the University of Massachusetts Boston’s approach, please visit their website here.