Going to college is a point of pride for students who are first in their family to venture into unknown territory. For some, this pride may quickly manifest into uncertainty or concern that they don’t belong. The unfamiliarity of the college environment, complete with oddly named offices like the Bursar and the
Registrar, many first-generation students quickly notice the complexities of college life. For many, it’s easy to feel lost and alone yet we find when students make connections with peers and adults who genuinely care about their success, the impossible turns to possible.
At the University of Florida, I can proudly say we’ve intentionally supported first-generation college students for the last decade. With the start of the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program in 2006, the institution made a commitment to financially and personally support nearly 1,250 undergraduate, first-generation students each year. Marrying a full-grant and scholarship financial aid package with a comprehensive support program that includes, but is not limited to peer mentoring, financial literacy education, career preparation, and leadership development has made a difference for nearly 4,000 first-generation students over the last 10 years.
So, how do we ensure first-generation students who come to UF or any university, for that matter, succeed and graduate? My first answer is: we expect them to. High expectations of students previously considered “at-risk” is important. Language matters. We never threaten that “some of you” won’t be here on graduation day. Many tell us family members or friends from their hometowns say such things. We never do.
Our first-generation students are not disadvantaged. We help them uncover their many advantages (i.e. independence, problem-solving, and resilience) that they’ve relied upon to get them through past struggles. These past experiences and how they’ve overcome, positions them well for college success. When college gets hard, as it tends to, they know how to persevere relying on their unique and coveted strengths. We just help point out these strengths every chance we can.
We must also provide the support and needed resources, many mentioned above, tailored specifically to the first-generation experience. This can include engaging alumni to connect with current students to expand their professional network and learn about tips for transitioning out of college. Doing so implies current students will earn a degree and transition to graduate school, professional school, and/or post-graduate employment. First-generation students also benefit from peer mentors as well as life coaches who provide encouragement and the know-how to navigate the complexities of college life and beyond.
For more information about the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program or to discuss ways to improve first-generation student success, please contact Dr. Leslie Pendleton, University of Florida, firstname.lastname@example.org