Can you define what "first-generation student" means to you? What makes them unique, aside from family history?

I take a lot of pride in identifying as a first-generation college student. I see myself as the achievement of the American dream my parents were seeking, and feel excited about the shift I’ve created not only for myself, but for my entire family, past and future generations, and my surrounding community. My parents were challenged as immigrants, and often did not know how to access the resources available to them here in the states. They worked countless hours in physically demanding jobs, both with disabilities from very difficult pasts. Their focus always remained centered on making sure that they were setting me up for a better life; education was an ingrained value in my mindset.

I am a proud graduate of Saint Mary’s College, having received a BA in politics and later a master’s degree in counseling psychology. This was all made possible by the amazing support of programs like Students Rising Above, as well as my network of supporters, including my parents, who believed in my future and success.

And now, full circle, I am doing just that for other first-generation college students as the director of student programs for Students Rising Above. The challenges I lived shaped me to become an advocate for others and have enabled me to have an impact, empowering students from various diverse backgrounds to achieve all they set their minds to. And at the root of it all, I know that those future generations, including my own children, won’t have to face the same challenges. They will have the capacity to achieve the social capital that often felt distant for me growing up. I work everyday with a smile on my face and gratitude in my heart, because I know that my story is one shared with those I serve and together, we’re going to make a difference in this world, one step at a time.

How does a first-generation student’s approach to education differ from their legacy counterparts?

In every single student I work with through Students Rising Above, I see opportunity. They see opportunity in themselves. They want more and need more. With that being said, they work hard. They feel responsible for elevating their family and often, that responsibility can take a toll on the students. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, first-generation students often need someone to let them know that their challenges along the way are not a reflection of failure or disappointment. This idea of questioning can be identified as Imposter Syndrome -- do I belong here? am I doing the right thing? It is often a moment in time they are having, a bump along the road, and with some reframing and refocus, they can get right back to that path towards success. First-generation students are some of the most resilient individuals on these college campuses. They are resourceful and when they feel like one door has closed, they find another way to navigate around the barrier.

Why is it important for first-generation students to attend college?

When our students head off to college, it is often the first time they are leaving their immediate communities, giving themselves the space and capacity to explore the world available to them. Taking that big step of attending a university means they leave home and integrate themselves into a microcosm of people. They learn from others with different upbringings. They bond with those who share them. They see themselves as an independent, separate from challenges that they may have at home. They also start to see themselves as more capable of changing their future, much more in control as they begin to make decisions that help grow their social and economic capital.

College gives first-generation students the opportunity to create a balanced life, one with more stability, but also one with concrete life skills that will help them find solutions as they face additional challenges along their college-to-career journey.

It's often said that first-generation students tend to be insecure about their educational path and lack the level of support that their counterparts have. Do you agree with this? If so, why do first-generation students feel less confident? What factors determine support?

First-generation college students frequently come from under-resourced school districts, but they have the determination to compete with their more affluent peers. They may lack the level of academic preparation, but they are also up for the challenge. That being said, there are many times when a 4.0 high school grad heads off to college where they then are presented with courses and a format that is beyond their knowledge. We do our best to coach students to take advantage of additional resources, including tutoring services, office hours with professors, peer study groups, etc. Sometimes it takes a few months, but they can usually get into the groove.

Frequently our students are also choosing majors based on a limited understanding of the vast number of career paths they can choose from. For example, a student may say they want to be a doctor, because they want to “help people in their community.” Academically, they may not be posed to take on or enjoy what a pre-med course load looks like, but they won’t know that until they explore it themselves. And once they get to college, they can explore and understand alternate ways of going into a field of interest that may engage more of their learning and set them up for success.

Frequently, these students may also start in remedial courses, failing their writing and math classes, because of a lack of foundational knowledge in those subjects or begin to see themselves as inferior in the world of college academics due to Imposter Syndrome. If they can hang tight, access their resources, network, and put in strong efforts to push ahead, then they’ll find their stride.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

We find the number one challenge among our students is letting go of family, as they often have a sense of responsibility to always be present at home. They’re often the anchor / rock in their family. It’s hard for them to leave and they return home frequently to help, which can often lead to losing focus on their academic responsibilities.

Additionally, our students are often told by family that they need to be monetarily contributing and may not have a frame of reference on how to navigate financial matters.

Lastly, their personal identity. As mentioned above, Imposter Syndrome involves self-questioning (do I fit in here?, do I belong?, why should I stay?) and can be a strong, real barrier for our students, who are all working hard to stay focused, committed, and become the first in their family to graduate from college.

In your experience, what are some key pieces of information that first-generation students are missing or learn later?

Some of the largest challenges that we see with our students are often centered around financial aid and money management. Lack of frame of reference on 1) what needs to be done to obtain financial assistance and 2) how to advocate for themselves.

Frequently, first-generation students are thought to be unprepared academically, but in my opinion, their drive for academic success is so strong that they quickly adapt to educational challenges. Yes, they may come from schools that are under-resourced, but they do what they have to get the job done. At some of the top universities across the U.S., first-generation students are thriving academically and they are resourceful in finding support to improve their writing skills, seek out tutoring support, attend office hours with their professors, etc. They work hard to keep up, and it pays off.

Workforce Development: In the founding years of Students Rising Above, we identified that many of our students were heading back home unsure of how to use their degrees they had worked so hard to complete. Students Rising Above provides meaningful internship and professional development opportunities that are helping propel our students into a more diverse workforce. Together, with our community, we are helping today’s youth find tomorrow’s meaningful and sustainable careers.

What are the factors that lead a person to pursue an education even though no one in their family has? Where does their value for education come from?

Pride: They ARE the difference. They are 100% responsible for their own lives and the paths they pave. No one can take that away from them once they realize how in control they are. I truly believe that our students at Students Rising Above are special -- they have an ingrained sense of success. Yes, some of our students come from families who encourage education, but the majority do not have that push at home.

When we interview these young adults, we’ll often ask “When did you know college was your answer?” and we frequently hear “I just did one day!” They sure did -- when they realized they could break the cycle of poverty by setting higher expectations for themselves. When they realized that obtaining a college degree meant opening the door to a workforce that felt far away from them. Suddenly that world feels much more within their reach. Networking, connecting to internships and volunteer opportunities, establishing relationships with their peers and their professors -- all of it is setting themselves up for success!

First-generation students are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and dropout of college. How can we help reverse this trend? When do we need to start supporting students? How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

There is a richness in a first-generation student’s ability to navigate their college success journey. These students become role models for others. They show a presence on campus that motivates those around them. They ask intuitive questions in the classrooms, engage in their communities and see value in giving back. They challenge the conversations on campuses and bring in ideas that cause change. These students become leaders on their college campuses and are action-oriented.

For example, one of our SRA students, who first presented as a shy and reserved young girl, confused about what decisions to make about her journey, has now become a voice for others on her campus. She went off to college and blossomed, creating much-needed student initiatives for financial literacy on her campus. She saw a need among her peers to understand financial aid as it relates to long-term success, especially first-generation and DACA students. She started creating systems on her campus to fill this need, and that literature and model is now being implemented in other partner universities. It’s this type of innovative thinking that is creating positive change for generations to come.

How can educators ensure that they are supporting the first-generation student population before they get to college? How can educators support them in college?

A college-going culture early on in a child’s life will elevate their entire thinking around higher education. The more excited a community can be in infusing that knowledge and the confidence for these students to be game changers in their communities, the more the students are going to soak in that encouragement and understand the importance of setting themselves up for success with higher education. We aren't going to change the world, they are! We are empowering them to do so, giving them the vision for a better future.

Throughout the college-to-career journey, mentorship and advising provides a funnel towards new experiences, adventures, and ideas. This support system offers a network of opportunities, such as informational interviews, job shadowing, internships and much more.

Be a mentor to a young adult who craves a better tomorrow! Share your journey, including the ups and downs we all face as we figure out our careers. Let them know they are not alone; connect them to like-minded individuals who can inspire them.

Encourage them to get involved on their campus with organizations that align with their values and potential careers. Help them create a resume and cover letter, teach them the importance of thank you notes. Help them understand how to balance their finances, what it means to have a credit card, and not to be afraid of money management. These are just examples of small gestures we can all share that create BIG differences in a first-generation student's life!

Do you have any ideas about how to get first-generation students more involved in the academic community? What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

Network, network, network! Leverage as many networking opportunities as possible through career centers and career fairs, as well as local networking opportunities such as business associations, community clubs, volunteering, and more. Every person you encounter provides another opportunity. You never know who you are saying hello to and how that person could impact your life!

Learn from your professors: get to know those who are infusing your brain with knowledge.

Leverage your peers: be curious about them, their backgrounds, their visions for the future. Everyone is a learning opportunity.

Additionally, take advantage of self-care resources: mental health support on campus, mindfulness courses, taking a break in your campus lounges, or treating yourself to a cup of coffee at your campus cafe. Take care of yourself, too!

Lorna Contreras-Townsend

Students Rising Above Alum

Lorna Contreras-Townsend is a Students Rising Above alum from the class of 2004. She attended St. Mary’s College of Moraga and received a bachelor’s degree in politics with a minor in Spanish, then went on to pursue a master’s in psychology from The Wright Institute. Lorna has extensive experience in community advocacy work and navigating social services for a holistic approach to client’s needs. Lorna’s passion lies in giving back to the community that once supported her, and she joined SRA as an advisor in 2010. Lorna feels lucky to be able to work with SRA now both as an advisor and as managing director of student programs.