For First-Gens, Ways To Be "Their Whole Selves"

 

By Gerry Boyle '78
 

One first-generation college student at Colby was perplexed when a roommate told him parents were responsible for paying for students’ books. Another student looks for a familiar place to take a break from his new life on campus.

“Sometimes he goes to Walmart, because that’s what reminds him of home,” said Tashia Bradley, associate dean of students. “He just sits in there for a while.”

Twenty years after Patricia Marshall ’94 graduated from Colby, “first-gen” students still face challenges, but they are finding new opportunities to talk about their experiences.

Marshall came from extreme rural poverty and a difficult home life but arrived academically prepared. Other students may have their own sets of challenges. But programs—instigated by Jessica Boyle ’12, a first-generation student who pushed for services at Colby for students like her—are in place, with much more to come, Bradley said. 

A supply closet offers students school supplies. First-generation students, and others, meet monthly for dinner with guest speakers. Incoming students this fall (53 identify as first-generation) will be matched with student mentors. Bradley has hired two students as first-generation fellows to develop ways to increase awareness and gather resources. 

“It isn’t enough for us to be in a group and be with ourselves,” she said. “How do we educate other people to understand our experiences?”

Those experiences often center on socioeconomic issues and what Bradley calls “social capital.” 

“Just trying to figure out where they belong in this environment,” she said. “All students have this experience, but for first-gens, it’s an added layer.”

Many first-generation students can’t turn to their parents for help navigating the social, academic, or financial world of college. And they feel they can’t reveal this to other students, Bradley said. “Often they’re ashamed,” she said. “They feel very secretive about it.”

She said another project, a website for parents and/or guardians of first-generation students about life at Colby, will answer questions that have not been addressed in traditional orientation efforts. “It can be super-intimidating,” Bradley said. “How do we not cut them out of the experience but rather create opportunities so they too can be part of the experience?”

At one orientation session, she said, many parents were asking about how their children at Colby would have access to the Sugarloaf Mountain ski area, long part of Colby culture. “For me that was eye-opening. I could imagine a parent sitting there thinking, ‘One, what is Sugarloaf? Two, why are we talking about skiing?’”

The work Bradley and others are undertaking is aimed at encouraging an atmosphere where first-gen students’ experiences aren’t looked down upon. “So they can come and be their whole selves here,” she said. “So they can feel this is their institution as well.”

—Gerry Boyle ’78

 
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