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First-Generation Symposium highlights challenges and achievements of first-gen students

Published on March 31, 2021

First-Generation Symposium highlights challenges and achievements of first-gen students

College students The struggles, misconceptions and success of first-generation college students and how universities can support them was the subject of Eastern Connecticut State University’s First-Generation Symposium on March 26. The all-day conference featured presentations from students, faculty, staff and keynote speaker Ashley Rondini, and welcomed students and faculty members from all 17 schools within the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System.

Nicolas Simon
Nicolas Simon

Eastern Sociology Professor Nicolas Simon opened the proceedings, thanking the Davis Education Foundation for their presidential grant and noting the day wouldn’t be possible without their generosity and support. The mission of the Davis Education Foundation is to develop collaborative financial partnerships that directly improve and enhance student success.

As a first-generation college student Simon has done extensive research on the topic. He is one of three authors of the book “Clearing the Path for First-Generation College Students: Qualitative and Intersectional Studies of Educational Mobility,” which analyzes how social processes affect the experiences of first-generation college students before and during their transition to higher education.

In defining what a first-generation student is, Simon cited Howard London, the first person to publish on the topic in his 1989 book “Breaking Away: A Study of First-Generation College Students and their Families.” London’s definition of first-generation students is “students who are the first in their family to go to college.”

The conference continued with a special message from President Elsa Núñez, who started her speech by reassuring students that they are worthy. “The key point here is that every student watching today belongs at college. You earned the right to be here and we are committed to your success and graduation.”

Núñez then shared some of her own experiences as a first-generation college student and immigrant. A native of Puerto Rico, Núñez and her family emigrated to New Jersey when she was eight years old. Not being able to speak English made school a challenge. “My first year in school was a disaster,” said Núñez. “The teacher didn’t know what to do with me. I just doodled and tried to write the alphabet. I received no instruction at all that year.”

Elsa Nunez
President Elsa Núñez

“It was the happiest day of my life,” said Núñez of the day when she was accepted to the three colleges she had applied to. “For me, being the first in my family to go to college was a huge deal. I felt vindicated, validated and valued.”

In her senior year of high school, Núñez described the prejudice she received after being accepted to three reputable colleges. “I went to see the principal and the first thing she said to me with an angry tone was, ‘Who does your family know?’ She assumed that I didn’t get in on my own.

“I tell you this story to remind us of the prejudice and bigotry people of color have faced in this country for centuries. My principal couldn’t accept the fact that I had earned the acceptance to a great school, but I did earn it. You deserve to be here at Eastern. You deserve to graduate. You deserve the opportunity to have a successful career. Let no one diminish you and your talents… never,” said Núñez.

Stacey Close
Vice President Stacey Close 

The next presenter was Associate Provost and Vice President of Equity and Diversity Stacey Close, who focused on the resources and support that are available to first-generation students. He also shared stories of some first-generation college alumni who have gone on to bigger things. “One of the things that I want you to remember about first-generation students is, if you look at places around where there are universities—not just Eastern—first-generation students have been instrumental in not only the success of those universities, but also in their branding and helping to build those universities up,” said Close.

The conference then divided into three concurrent sessions and gave students and faculty members the chance to present their research. The range of presentations included “First-Gen is Best-Gen”; “Engaging Students Through Performing Arts”; “Best Practices to Support First-Generation College Students”; “OER as a Student Success Strategy”; “Eastern Alumni First-Generation College Students”; “The Academic Success Center: Support the Academic Journey”; “The Mentee-Mentor Relationship, or How Institutional Actors Can Pave the Path to Success”; “A Professor Shares Lessons Learned as a First-Generation College Student”; and others.

The keynote speaker was Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Ashley Rondini of Franklin and Marshall College. Rondini’s presentation was titled “Flipping the Script: The Equity Imperative for Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) in Supporting First Generation College Students.”

To begin, Rondini invited attendees to get involved by typing words they associate with first-generation students. These words ranged from “determined” and “fierce” to “survivors” and “low-income.” Rondini based her presentation on the misconceptions, struggles and societal stereotypes and pressures first-generation students face.

“Over the past few decades, we’ve started to hear a lot more about first-generation college students both in academic scholarship and in public discourse,” said Rondini. “In news media and headlines, we’ve seen them extol the inspirational virtue of first-generation students, often framing the triumphs of these students and these familiar individualistic tropes like case studies of good old-fashioned American meritocracy — ‘If you work hard enough, anything is possible.’”

Ashley Rondini
Ashley Rondini

Rondini explained a few of the diverse challenges and experiences not only first-generation students face, but also students of color, low-income, immigrant and undocumented students. “A rapidly expanding body of academic literature has documented the myriad challenges that first-generation students disproportionately face in pursuit of their educational goals,” said Rondini. Some of the challenges she named were risk of homelessness, food insecurity, limited access to healthcare, and the need to have a job while being a full-time student to support themselves or their families.

“I want us to challenge ourselves to think about the ways that we think about first-generation students,” said Rondini, urging attendees to be aware of their own misunderstandings of first-generation students. “When we present first-generation students only as either inspirational, individual success stories or, more paternalistically, as lucky beneficiaries of generous institutional commitment to diversity, we realize the dissonance it introduces in our ideas of education being a pathway to mobility.”

To conclude her presentation Rondini stated, “If we double down on pretending that our institutions operate in a neutral and therefore presumably fair way, if we aren’t willing to reckon with how institutional shortcomings contribute to disproportionate attrition rates for first-generation students, who then are we saying college is really for?

“The truth is, I believe deeply in education. I believe in its transformative power as a force for personal, political and social change, and by all accounts I’m an optimist in that way. But for those of us who work in higher education, there’s a hard truth that we must be willingly to recognize.”

The day concluded with Simon thanking everyone for attending the conference and giving them one finally task. “The symposium is done, and now what will we do next?” he asked. “I would like to encourage you to think about your passions. What are your passions? What is the essence of your soul that makes you the individual you are?”

To Eastern’s first-generation students, who represent 30 percent of the undergraduate population, Simon said, “If you are a student my best advice is to join clubs to increase your social capital and network. It’s highly beneficial to have a group of people who share the same passion and experiences as you.”

Written by Bobbi Brown