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Campus & Community

Drexel Supports First-Generation Students Through Collaboration and Conversation

January 23, 2017

First generation

What does it mean to be the first in your family to earn a college degree? 

Faculty and students from across Drexel will come together in the next few weeks to answer this question and share their experiences as first-generation college students.

These conversations, which will be held on Jan. 25 and Feb. 2, are intended to start a dialogue about the experience of first-generation students at Drexel and to help these students gain the skills and opportunities essential for success. By bringing these students and faculty together, a small group of Drexel staff, faculty and students hope to learn more about what it means to be a first generation student at Drexel and how the University can best support its current and future first-generation students. 

For first-generation students, attending college can feel like being dropped into an unfamiliar culture or learning a new language. In addition to adjusting to college culture and figuring out what it takes to be a successful college student, many first-gen students struggle with financial constraints and balancing home, school and work commitments. Another common concern is a lack of academic support systems and networks from parents who have experienced college and are fluent in English. Without parents to help with homework, interviewing for co-ops and applying to jobs or graduate school, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. 

“I was one of the top students at my high school,” said junior biomedical engineering student Feyone La, “but I had no idea the challenges I would face when I moved across the country to attend Drexel University.”

Although an estimated 30 percent of Drexel’s full-time undergraduates and many faculty and staff identify as first-generation, it can be hard to pinpoint members of the Drexel community who share the “invisible identity” of being a first-generation college student. The lack of easily identifiable mentors or resources on campus can make it harder for some first-generation students to ask for help.

Drexel’s First Generation College steering group is working to change this by connecting first-generation students with each other and providing academic, financial and social resources to help them achieve success. Starting with faculty-student conversations, the steering group hopes to gain more insight into the experiences of first generation college students at Drexel, in order to identify the next steps towards supporting and celebrating these students.

 “Having a community of peers and staff to support first generation students and provide connections to resources is essential to their ability to feel a sense of belonging and to truly thrive at Drexel,” said La.

Many first-generation graduates emphasize that, despite facing struggles others might not think about, their experiences as first-generation students were not necessarily negative. And being first-generation doesn’t have to hold you back from post-graduate success.

Provost and Executive Vice President M. Brian Blake, PhD, knows this from his experience as a first-generation engineering student at Georgia Tech, where he saw how it could feel unfair when “classmates were getting tutoring from their parents who may have been professors or practicing engineers.” At the same time, he emphasized how such experiences gave him the skills to thrive in his own career.

“It teaches you to be open to advice … even seeking good mentorship. You also will develop a “stick-with-it” attitude that will enable you in academic situations and beyond,” said Blake.

Dean of the Graduate College and Executive Vice Provost James Herbert, PhD, shared this perspective.

“Being the first in one’s family to attend college can be tough,” said Herbert, “but can also lead to the development of enhanced problem solving skills. One must learn to be resourceful in order to navigate the various aspects of college life without the family guidance that most students take for granted. In the end, this can lead to a stronger sense of independence and confidence in one’s ability to handle whatever obstacles life might present.”

Indeed, many first-generation faculty members mentioned the pride and self-confidence they gained when reflecting on their experience and accomplishments.

“[Being first-generation] means that I can be very confident in my ability to work hard, learn and achieve success, because I did it with very little money or support along the way,” said Diane Sicotte, PhD, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. This sense of achievement is particularly important, she says, “because people like us can feel like imposters in an environment where everyone else seems to belong.”

As the first in his family to earn a college degree and a doctorate, André Carrington, PhD, assistant professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences, said that his unique status serves as a reminder “that people like me are working against a strong headwind when it comes to achieving something that most people around me take for granted. It's humbling and challenging.”

These conversations come at an important moment in Drexel’s history as the University celebrates its 125th anniversary and charts a new course for its future. The unique perspectives and experiences of first-generation students can play a vital role in defining Drexel’s vision of success.

The first two conversations are scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 25, at Peck Problem Solving Resource Center 213 from 3–5 p.m. and Thursday, Feb. 2 at Bossone 302 from 3­–4:30 p.m. The conversations will be facilitated by Dianne Sicotte, PhD, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences; Lloyd Ackert, PhD, associate teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Ray Lum, associate teaching professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health. The conversations will bring together students and faculty, as well as staff from the Center for Learning and Academic Success Services (CLASS) and Center for Scholar Development. 

Drexel students interested in attending this session or a future session, or those who wish to share their thoughts, can contact the First Generation College steering group at learningcenter@drexel.edu.

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