Can you define what "first-generation student" means to you? What made you unique as a student, aside from family history?

A first-generation student is one where his or her parents have not attained bachelor’s degrees. In other words, the first-gen student is the first in their family to graduate from college. In my situation, neither of my parents graduated from high school, much less attended college. However, my parents always had very high expectations for my educational outcomes and met those expectations with a high level of care. And now, here I am, the executive director of an organization whose mission is to see that first-generation students, like myself, earn a four-year college degree and a life of choice and opportunity.

How did your approach to education as a first-generation student differ from your legacy counterparts?

Reflecting on my experiences in college, particularly in my early college years and the years preceding, I viewed college as the place where I would learn exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and as a pathway to a career, which resulted in emphasising the destination of a college degree instead of the journey of a college experience. Many of my legacy counterparts, however, viewed college as an opportunity to maximize exposure to a myriad of experiences, not only limited to career. I remember feeling a tremendous sense of pressure and responsibility to succeed. I felt it was incumbent upon me to break the chains of intergenerational poverty that my family had experienced for generations. I do not recall my legacy counterparts feeling such pressures.

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

At College Track, we know a four-year college degree continues to be the best predictor of upward social mobility. And yet, even while college attendance rates continue to rise, the gap in college completion, particularly for lower-income, first-generation Americans and students of color, is widening at an alarming rate. In order to have a world where everyone can participate, and to meet the demands of the workforce, we need to support first-generation students and help them earn a four-year college degree. 87% of College Track students will be the first in their family to earn a college degree.

Also, if as an employer you want a leader that is adaptable, resourceful, innovative, look no further than a first-generation college graduate.

There is also a level of social capital that is very rarely acquired by first-generation students if they do not attend and graduate from college, a level of social capital that is necessary for all voices in society to be represented. We know that a college degree is a requirement to be in many positions with decision-making authority and we know that the majority of Americans do not have a college degree. Therefore, in order to ensure representation for the majority, we must have first-generation students attend and complete college so that they can lead and make decisions with the perspective and experience of those who are all-too-often under-represented in leadership.

We set out to change the narrative by equipping first-generation students with the tools, resources, encouragement, support, and love necessary to not only succeed in college selection, enrollment, persistence, and graduation, but also to serve as change agents in their communities to, in the words of our late U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, “keep the door open and the ladder down for others to follow.”

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?

This is exactly the challenge College Track is set up to help students overcome. Students who are the first in their family to apply to college usually don’t have family members to effectively help navigate the process. We guide our students through the admissions and financial aid processes, help them narrow their list of colleges and ultimately assist them in deciding which school will be a “best fit” for them. We fill in the gaps that families and many secondary schools cannot, so our students will not only get to college but will successfully graduate.

In what areas did you struggle as a first-generation student?

Most of my struggles were academic and social/emotional, particularly in my first years of college. My high school did not adequately prepare me for the academic rigor that awaited me at Stanford and I quickly learned that there not only existed a significant disparity between the haves and have-nots on campus, but that I was very much a member of the latter group. While I did not feel that others treated me differently as a result of my lack of financial resources, I remember initially battling what is described as impostor syndrome, sometimes feeling like I was only admitted to increase the university’s diversity.

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

First-generation students often lack the social networks that are an important component of college life, and also highly useful when seeking internships and employment. They often under-utilize campus resources and support, that are most helpful to navigating college successfully, such as career centers, office hours, counseling services, and study abroad opportunities. Many times first-generation students are simply not aware that these resources even exist.

First-generation students are also much more likely to return home over holiday and summer breaks and resume work at the same or similar job they had in high school, as opposed to securing internships that are aligned with passions and fields of study. This is often exacerbated due to the financial barriers that accompany unpaid internships, family pressure to return home, and the under-utilization of the aforementioned resources. All of these factors operate in tandem to limit these students ability to effectively build social capital.

Our internal data at College Track shows that students who complete at least one internship, while controlling for GPA, are 40% more likely to secure full-time employment within six months of college graduation. Therefore, we must act to ensure that first-generation students are connecting their studies to career pathways sooner to catalyze their pathway to upward social mobility.

What are the factors that lead you to pursue an education even though no one in your family has? Where did your value for education come from?

I always viewed higher education as a pathway out of poverty. I remember the most common arguments in my household growing up were related to finances. Furthermore, my parents bought into the idea that higher education was my pathway to success. I was surrounded by a village of family members, friends, and educators who saw potential in me that I sometimes did not see in myself. It was my grandmother’s dream that I, as the youngest of her six grandchildren, would become the first to earn a college degree, as it was an accomplishment that had not been attainable for so many in my family. It was very clear to me from an early age that so many had invested so much into me and the way for me to pay them back was the succeed beyond my wildest dreams.

One of the sagest pieces of advice I received occurred in sixth grade while I was doing pre-algebra homework. My dad made it clear to me that it was important to surround myself with people who have done what I aspire to do in response to him no longer being able to support me with my homework assignments. He acknowledged that one thing all of my teachers had in common that he and my mom did not was that they had earned a college degree. I have reflected on and followed his advice ever since. That is partly why I am thrilled to work for an organization like College Track, where I can make a living by leveraging my personal identity for younger people in New Orleans as one who has done what our scholars aspire to do.

First-generation students are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and dropout of college. How can we help reverse this trend? At what stage did you feel like you needed more support as a first-generation student?

Much of this can be traced back to long before the college application process begins. We need to do more to support first-generation students early in high school, so we can make sure they are academically, socially, and financially prepared for college. Also, selecting the best-fit college for the student is critical. College Track’s “Best Fit” college recommendations include those that offer on-campus supports for first-generation students, admirable graduation rates, academic and social-emotional resources, and financial aid packages that allow students to graduate with less than $30,000 in student loan debt. Our research has shown that when these factors are mitigated for, our students graduate college at a rate more than double the national average for first-generation students.

One of the strategies we have employed at College Track New Orleans that has nearly eliminated the need for remedial coursework is to partner with our local community college to offer the remedial equivalent courses to our scholars while they are in high school. This mitigates the degree to which test taking remains a barrier for college admissions and ensures our scholars begin college on track. On a macro level, I recommend that state boards of education create policy to better align high school offerings with college minimum admissions standards and counties implement partnerships with local colleges and universities to reduce or eliminate the need for remedial college coursework.

Personally, I realized I needed more support as a first-generation student during the summer after my freshman year of college. While living and interning with fellow first-generation students, I remember frequently discussing what were the then barriers to our success and the opportunities as a result. These conversations laid the framework for us to start what is now First-gen, Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) at Stanford, a student group designed to provide a community for first-generation/low-income students on campus.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

There is a tremendous benefit in bringing together diverse populations and viewpoints, as well as people with a multitude of lived experiences. These enrich the learning environment for all. For many of us, our neighborhoods and schools are determined based on one’s access, or lack thereof, to resources. As such, our peer learning can be stifled if we do not engage with folks who are different from us. First-generation student populations have identities, experiences, and perspectives that make our colleges more reflective of society, better prepares students for their future careers, increases student self-awareness, and yields more robust, holistic solutions to community challenges.

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?

Before they get to college:

  • College affordability/financial aid support to ensure that students and families have completed all necessary forms and are making college choices with affordability as a primary criterion for selection. At College Track, we conduct college affordability workshops with our students and families beginning in 9th grade. We then conduct individualized senior 1-on-1 meetings, FAFSA workshops, and CSS profile workshops.
  • Focus on non-cognitive skills like time management, study habits, organization, and self-advocacy. These are often overlooked in high schools, but prove necessary to navigate higher education effectively.
  • College exposure via college tours, university representative visits, following colleges/universities on social media. “Demonstrated interest” is one of many factors that colleges who practice holistic admissions take into account when deciding who is admitted. Furthermore, it is my firm belief that there is no substitute for feeling like you belong on a college campus than by setting feet on one regularly.
  • Meaningful summer engagement is vital for all students, but particularly first-generation students. At College Track, we ensure that all of our students are meaningfully engaged in the summer whether it is through working at a job, taking a summer course (to remediate or accelerate), or enrolling in a summer enrichment program on a college campus. These opportunities can be transformative for first-generation students and they combat “summer brain drain” or “summer learning loss.”
  • Standardized Test Prep is an opportunity that can be very costly for families and has traditionally served as a barrier for students who cannot afford it. At College Track we provide standardized test prep for our students at no cost, there are other free or low-cost opportunities for students as well. For example, Khan Academy and College Board have partnered to offer free SAT prep for all students via their website.
  • Summer bridge or orientation programs specifically for first-generation students. These programs allow students to live on-campus, earn college credit, and meaningfully connect with peers and faculty in a more intimate setting the summer after high school graduation, but before college begins.

In college:

  • Living and learning communities that allow first-generation students to enroll and take classes together while living in the same or proximate dormitories.
  • Mentoring programs that provide one-to-one or group mentoring where first-gen upperclassmen can connect in a structured, yet authentic, way with first-gen underclassmen.
  • Faculty interaction to reduce the perceived barrier between faculty and the first-gen student population. This can be implemented in a number of ways, ranging from structured office hours to work-study opportunities to dinner with professors.
  • Early warning systems to alert university staff to when a (first-generation) student is in danger of not persisting that is met with a coordinated effort to provide the necessary supports to keep that student on-track.
  • Encouraging students to get involved but not overly involved because extracurricular involvement on a college campus is a way to build social capital and is likely to increase one’s sense of belongingness. However, some first-generation students have a tendency to become overly involved to the point where they are not allocating enough time to their academics.
  • Monitor work hours as many first-generation students need to work to make ends meet. Sometimes students will work too many hours at the expense of academic performance. At College Track, we recommend that students do not work more than fifteen hours per week.
  • Career/internship support to ensure that first-generation students are securing opportunities that are going to give them increased exposure to successfully transition from college to career.

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

Colleges and universities must institutionalize spaces and supports for first-generation students. While what we did at Stanford with FLIP was student-led, the university created the Diversity and First-Gen Office three years later. We have seen similar student groups and offices emerge on several campuses throughout the country, but we are nowhere close to where we need to be regarding this matter. Fifteen years ago, very few, if any, colleges or universities were taking on this work, so I am happy to see the progress that has been made, but if we are to truly move the needle for first-generation graduation outcomes we need far greater effort across the higher education landscape. I would also recommend colleges and universities to partner with community-based organizations like College Track who also focus on college persistence and graduation. For example, through our partnership with Tulane University, we have seen tremendous success for our student outcomes. Since the partnerships inception in 2014, Tulane University has created a Center for Academic Equity, which serves all self-identified underrepresented or non-traditional students. Our partnership boasts a 96% on-track to graduate within four-years rate, an increase of more than 20% for pell-grant eligible students at the university. Similar partnerships not only increase the diversity of college campuses, but also make them more inclusive and equitable. Once first-generation students feel a sense of belongingness, support, and value, they too will become more involved in the academic community.

What were some useful resources for you as a first-generation student?

I attended the Quest Scholars Program, a summer enrichment program at Stanford University for high achieving first-gen/low-income students. That helped me through the rigors of the holistic college admissions process and the Partnership for Academic Excellence, a program that offered free SAT prep and took students on college visits, in my hometown. Through the support of these two programs and mentors, I was able to secure numerous scholarships that removed all financial barriers to my attainment of a college degree. I used FastWeb to identify the majority of the scholarships for which I applied.

Before my freshman year at Stanford, I attended the Stanford Summer Engineer Academy (SSEA), which prioritized supporting first-generation/low-income incoming freshman who planned to major in engineering. During my early years at Stanford, I was heavily involved with the National Society of Black Engineers and the Black Community Services Center, both of which provided invaluable academic and social support. Then toward to end of my undergraduate experience, I relied on my peers that were in FLIP with me.

When I reflect on my experience as a first-generation college student, I know that 1) I had abundant resources that were made available to me as a student at Stanford University and 2) my trajectory is not the norm for the majority of first-generation college students in our country as most first-generation students do not attend colleges or universities free of financial barriers. What concerns me most is that most universities that offer comparable resources to Stanford are not accessible to most first-generation students. Therefore, it is our responsibility to prioritize providing the necessary resources for first-generation students on all college campuses because once resources are distributed equitably across the higher education landscape, we all succeed.

Mike Woodward

Executive Director at College Track New Orleans

Since September 2018, Mike has served as the executive director of College Track New Orleans where he leads a team of 25 to ensure that first-generation, low-income students have an increased opportunity to reverse generational poverty beginning with the acquisition of a college degree. Prior to his current role, Mike served as the site director of College Track New Orleans for 3+ years. Most recently, Mike was selected to the New Orleans Regional Leadership Institute (NORLI) and as one of 80 W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leaders Network fellows in the U.S.

Originally from Fredericksburg, Virginia, Mike has been a socially-motivated leader since he was a teenager. While in high school, he developed a countywide tutoring program called Helping Other Help Themselves (HOHT). During his undergraduate years at Stanford University, Mike founded the First-generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP), to serve as a platform for students who identified as the first in their family to attend university or low-income to congregate for social, academic and professional support. Upon graduating from Stanford, Mike co-founded Project Skill Build in New Orleans, a service initiative focused on empowering a traditionally marginalized segment of the New Orleans population to rebuild the city one home at a time. During his time at Project Skill Build, Mike helped more than 80 participants find full-time employment. Mike is a first-generation college graduate with a background in education, business, and policy. He holds degrees from both Stanford University (BS in bioengineering ‘08) and Tulane University (MPH ‘13). Upon realizing that his most intense passion is working with youth, Mike joined Teach for America in 2013.

Mike has been recognized as both a student and a professional by numerous organizations. Among his awards and acknowledgements are Coca-Cola Scholar, Gates Millennium Scholar, Ron Brown Scholar, Albert Schweitzer Fellow, Bezos Educator Scholar, Louisiana Teacher Leader, Urban League ULEAD Fellow, Bryan Bell Metro Leadership Forum Fellow, New Leaders Council Fellow, STAND For Children Education Leadership Institute Fellow, Education Pioneers Visiting Fellow, a Leadership for Educational Equity Public Leaders Fellow, Emerging Philanthropist of New Orleans, and New Orleans Business Alliance Economic Ambassador. He is also currently an active member in the Young Leadership Council, the Urban League of Louisiana, the Teach For America Greater New Orleans Collective, the New Orleans Global Shapers Community, and serves as the Gulf Coast Regional Delegate for the Ron Brown Scholar Alumni Association, a Program Reading Committee member for the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, and a New Orleans Business Alliance Economic Ambassador.