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

A first-generation college student is someone who attends college in a family where neither the student’s mother or father obtained a college degree. Aside from this family history, first-generation college students are unique in their understanding and approach to the college-going process -- often starting the journey late in their high school careers. First-generation college students may not have the same type of guidance and support as their peers. Many also don’t have the cultural capital that their legacy peers possess. First-gen students typically don’t have much experience dealing with the “college culture” and successfully navigating issues such college academics, roommate problems, financial aid concerns, or meal plan questions, to name a few. First-gen students may find themselves being more independent, and needing to seek more outside advice and help, than their peers. Not surprising given the history of our country, many first-generation college students are from low-income backgrounds, are racial and ethnic minorities, and are female, which gives them unique views and opinions that they can bring to their college campuses. First-generation college students bring new perspectives and voices to their classes and diversify their campuses.

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

A first-generation college student may approach education as more of an opportunity to move out of poverty with very broad ideas of potential careers. While it’s often a dream and expectation of families, the access to the information, knowledge, and resources for first-gen students are often not available. Some may approach education with a feeling of not being good enough to compete since they don’t come from backgrounds with the same college experience as their legacy peers. The relationship of first-generation students to the college culture is a complicated one, and one that may take time for first-generation students to understand.

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

First-generation college students should attend college for many reasons! First, in Ohio alone, we know that 65% of open jobs will require some form of postsecondary credential by 2020, so college is necessary for students to pursue their careers. Additionally, students with bachelor’s degrees make $1 million more over the course of their lifetime than students with just a high school diploma -- making degrees vital to sustaining livable wages that will be able to support eventual families. Beyond the practical reasons such as money and job security, the time in college provides the space and opportunity for all students to grow personally. Given our country’s changing demographics, first-generation students provide perspectives and insight that can produce deeper learning and knowledge. The cross section of first-gen students offers diverse, new points of view not found in more homogenous groups of students.

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?

I think that some first-generation college students feel insecure about their educational paths because they don’t have a blueprint of what the educational path can/might look like to follow like their peers do who have parents or siblings who have been through the college-going process before. While their families may support them in terms of going to college, and want them to succeed, families of first-generation college students cannot always provide the same understanding of the college process and insight into the challenges that students face. Support is determined in many ways, and just because a parent doesn’t have a college degree does not mean they don’t support their student during their college journey.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

First-generation students struggle with navigating the college culture, which, truthfully, was not designed for them. In college, first-generation students are thrust into a new environment with little to no context for what to expect and must both learn and adapt to college life quicker than their peers. Emotional struggles, for example, could stem from some first-generation students feeling like they are “imposters” or that they don’t fit in on campus. Many first-generation students also struggle with not knowing who to ask for help or where to go if they have a question. Finally, first-generation students deal with pressures from home, as well, since family members do not have the shared experiences of their students.

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

First-generation students often miss information about the college going process itself, financing a college education, and skills and techniques that are useful in navigating college, as well as academic content knowledge depending on the quality of their secondary education. They also might take more time to learn the different ways to get involved on campus -- they don’t have people telling them about the clubs or organizations they took part in while they were in college. First-generation students may be missing information about how to declare a major, or how to access professors for things such as office hours. Often it is the little, day-to-day operations of college or university life that students may not learn until months or even years of being on campus.

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?

The fact that no one in their family has pursued an education may be in and of itself a huge factor for first-generation students deciding on whether they should pursue an education themselves! Parents of first-generation students may instill the need for a college education, especially since it generally leads to a greater earning potential. The motivation and value for education that first-generation students have may come from their own desire to have opportunities that others in their family do not and may also come from their families’ encouragement to pursue education beyond their attainment level.

First-generation students may be inspired to pursue an education based on their interactions with peers and teachers. Any of their teachers may encourage them to attend college, as well as mentors and coaches who work in schools everyday, including advisors, guidance counselors, coaches, etc. Through counseling and mentoring, these caring adults may show first-generation students why pursuing a college degree is important and can set them up for a successful future.

First-generation students are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and drop out of college. How can we help reverse this trend? When do we need to start supporting students?

Broadly, we can provide more resources to students and families, provide high quality K12 education, make college more affordable, and redesign the collegiate experience to be more inclusive of students from diverse backgrounds, to start. Pragmatically, we can better train educators, family members, and other adults about the changing demographics and backgrounds of students -- changing the mindsets of adults who work with students. We can support first-generation students by implementing programs such as the College Now Mentoring Program, which pairs every College Now scholarship recipient with a mentor in the community who helps them through their four years of college. A mentoring program such as this gives students the advice and counsel of someone who has been through college before and can answer their questions -- serving as a cheerleader or someone to encourage them to continue even when things get tough. Mentoring programs can be implemented on many different levels, and colleges themselves can create first-generation mentoring programs that pair first-generation students with faculty or staff members who were first-generation students themselves. Creating a community for first-generation students shows them that they are not alone and that someone else has struggled through the same problems and issues they are facing now. It tends to be easier for students to talk to someone about their concerns when that person has been through the same struggles.

Colleges can design more inclusive environments for first-generation students who may be facing struggles related to finances or other outside obligations. For example, many first-generation students from low-income backgrounds may work while in school in order to pay for tuition and other fees, while other students may have to care for family members while they are in college. Colleges can offer alternative schedules for students who may have other outside obligations, so they can balance school work more effectively.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

First-generation populations bring a diverse perspective to college campuses. They offer new thoughts and beliefs outside of what may have become the norm, and they also allow colleges to cultivate a new generation of college-going students and to create a deep appreciation in both first-generation students and their families for education. Economically, first-generation students bring federal resources such as Federal Pell Grants to help support costs charged by the institution.

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?

Educators can provide first-generation students intensive supports throughout their high school years that will ensure they are well-prepared to enter college. This can mean providing one-on-one support while applying for and choosing where to attend college. It can also mean checking in with students regularly in the summer months before they matriculate to campus.

While in college, educators can ensure that they are supporting first-generation students by creating support groups on campus that encourage first-generation students to share their struggles and needs. Educators can also make sure that they know who first-generation students are in their classes, and perhaps offer them additional help in office hours or outside of class. Finally, educators can work closely with other on-campus staff to make sure resources such as campus mental health services, financial aid, and general student support groups are being promoted to first-generation students so they know where to go should issues arise.

Do you have any ideas about how to get first-generation students more involved in the academic community?

I have many ideas, but to start, I think training an aging faculty on how to work with diverse students is imperative and hiring more diverse faculty and staff is critical. Pairing students with faculty members for mentorship and support is also a key way to help students connect to the academic community. Creating groups for first-generation students can help them get more involved in the academic community. For example, first-generation students who are now college faculty or staff can create communities to encourage other first-generation students to pursue education and share their experiences. By seeing other first-generation students in the academic community, it can encourage more first-generation students to get involved.

What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

First-generation students should look for college access organizations like College Now Greater Cleveland. There are college access organizations across the country that provide support and guidance to students during the college application and attendance process. Colleges themselves often have offices that address specific needs of diverse populations. These resources should be shared with students and families while they are still in high school. Other organizations that provide one-on-one support are also vital to first-generation student success, as it offers students the opportunity to work personally with someone to address their concerns and issues while in college. Additionally, the Center for First Generation Student Success provides insights and materials for first-generation students.

Dr. Michele Scott Taylor

Chief Program Officer at College Now Greater Cleveland

Dr. Michele Scott Taylor is the chief program officer at College Now Greater Cleveland and provides strategic leadership for the organization’s programmatic efforts, including school- and community-based advising programs as well as federal programs such as Talent Search, GEAR Up, and Upward Bound. Her research and practice ensures that College Now’s programming reflects best-in-class thinking and that it is on the cutting-edge of research in the college access and success field. Her previous role as coordinator of access and retention at John Carroll University focused on college access and retention.

As a senior research analyst for Cosmos Corporation, she conducted applied research, policy analysis, and evaluations for federally-funded projects typically funded by Department of Education, National Science Foundation, and Department of Justice.

Michele has spent most of her professional career in higher education administration in a myriad of student affairs and academic affairs roles. Her professional and research interests include: diversity, cultural competency development, program evaluation, organizational development and organizational learning in higher education and non-profit organizations. She received two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Akron majoring in political science, sociology, and French. She earned a master of education degree from Kent State University specializing in college student personnel as well as a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Pittsburgh with a concentration in administrative and policy studies.

Michele is also CEO and principal of Global Learning Solutions, a small consulting firm she started in an effort to provide cultural competency development, program evaluation, program and proposal development, as well as grant writing and organizational development assistance to small businesses and non-profit organizations.

In the community, Michele takes pride in serving on the board of Progressive Arts Alliance, a nonprofit that inspires students to reach their full potential by providing unique and relevant learning experiences using contemporary arts and 21st century media. She is also a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a social service organization whose purpose is to provide assistance and support through established programs in local communities throughout the world.