People often talk about accessibility for first generation students; how important do you think support is for all students?

Bearing the burden of an unchartered experience, while simultaneously changing the trajectory of one's familial outcome, can be a daunting task. To assist with the transition, academic institutions need to think holistically when attempting to provide resources for first-generation students. From ethnic affinity groups (social clubs) to addressing the population's concerns regarding perceived barriers to academic success, there needs to be an institutional effort to support firsts taking on the challenge of being a first. Without comprehensive and collective support, the perceived barriers to success become a reality.

What forms of support do you think are most often missing?

Cultural and emotional. Most institutions (via students) have or create groups to assist with the acculturation, enculturation, and assimilation processes. However, institutions fall short when understanding the various populations across campus. While diversity and inclusion is the current catchphrase, more emphasis should be placed on cultural competency, as the two concepts are not one and the same.

Why is support such a vital part of the college application process?

The college application process is extensive and can be intimidating, especially for families that have little to no experience with the process. You have seniors with a 4.0 GPA, all IB courses, great test scores, and commendable community service, however, when it comes to completing the application process, they become overwhelmed. They question the strength of their essays, if they can apply to their out-of-state dream school, can they afford it, who will help mom when they leave, and/or do they quit their part-time job and/or sport to dedicate more time to the process, etc. That's a lot, and the only way they successfully navigate through the process is via constant support. For instance, before every senior workshop, I allow participants two to three minutes to mentally and emotionally unload. They share the highs and lows of their school day, their frustrations with the application process, their perceptions of attending college, and their fears. It's a melting pot of 'I feel the same way' and 'me too.' Once the allotted time has expired, we discuss possible solutions (time management, study skills, etc.), locate the silver-lining, and lastly, I provide positive affirmations highlighting their abilities, their potential, and the beauty of being a first. Once our detox is over, we collectively reset and remind ourselves, “We got this. Let's go.” They are more productive every time. While they may need a little guidance with proofreading or listing all of their accomplishments (sometimes they minimize the achievements), I've noticed that most students simply need a cheerleader and supporter to keep them encouraged throughout the process.

What does good support look like to you?

From a parent or guardian?

Someone that says, “I'm proud of you” often; engaged (knowing their child's interests; grades; aspirations); not forcing their aspirations unto their kids; highlights the importance of education as soon as they enter grade school.

From a mentor?

Constant guidance, a motivator, a supporter, an awakener, a listening ear, a networker; an encourager, a GPS

From a community?

A partner with local schools; a supporter of academic and career driven initiatives; creating and implementing solutions that aid in creating global citizens

From a school?

Preparing students academically, culturally, and socially to become change agents; aligns students with the appropriate resources as applicable; culturally competent; aware of issues that impact education - locally and nationally; building and maintaining effective partnerships with community stakeholders; effective, up-to-date advising and guidance from staff and administrators.

How can the overall community attitude towards education affect a student's college aspirations?

If a community fails to highlight the importance of pursuing higher education, it leaves the student and the community in a space of complacency, unused knowledge and talents, and a lack of exposure allowing the cycle of limitations to permeate. On the other hand, when the community highlights the significance of the pursuit of higher education, it collectively champions the student's intellectual abilities and talents; it emphasizes how their decision-making and progression will not only change their family's trajectory, but that of the community; it removes limitations. The community's attitude towards education can be defining. It can inspire or impede.

For students who don't have the traditional parent/guardian role or figure in their life where can they turn?

Students and school personnel should assist with identifying a mentor or programming that can assist with not only academic and career aspirations, but social and cultural grooming as well. It can be an extended member of the family, a teacher that is readily supportive, a career consultant, and/or an academic advisor. I encourage students to have multiple mentors from different arenas - especially for students that may not have a traditional parent. Fortunately, I have learned that most mentors all share the same desired outcome: success.

How would you encourage students to ask for help who may be afraid to?

I often tell students that the difference between an A and a C is a question. If a student is too timid to make an inquiry in front of large groups, I advise him/her to speak with the person alone. I also make it a habit to ask questions in learning spaces so students know that I too am a “student.” To assist with alleviating fear, I also push students to ask questions when we're in public. Whether it be inquiring about an item on the menu or randomly stopping a student to locate a building on campus, I often put students in spaces that require them to get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable, especially if the discomfort takes them out of their comfort zone.

What is the role of a high school when providing support to students who may be struggling?

As an academic setting, schools are responsible for identifying a student's strengths and weaknesses as well as solutions. However, considering the financial and personnel burdens of educational systems, solutions can often seem far-fetched. Nonetheless, this is where community partnerships come into action. Being aware of community resources, while creating and maintaining partnerships can build bridges of solutions. Whether it be behavioral or academic, community entities often provide resources and support to the school and the student.

What are ways we can bridge the knowledge gap between students in the college application process and their parents, who are not as familiar with the process?

Teachers and administrators have to be creative. For instance, to assist with college essays, I know several English teachers that turned Common Application essay questions into a class assignment. By embedding a component of the application process into their curriculum, students were simultaneously learning and become familiar with the application process. On the other hand, I have created scavenger hunts for participants when they attended a college fair where students had to ask certain questions to admission representatives to become more familiar about requirements for admission. In essence, if the process is embedded within the curriculum, it helps students to answer the question of, 'why are we doing this?”.

For parents, I think it is important to be actively engaged. Whether it be tutoring or needing assistance with the completion of the FAFSA, parents have to become comfortable with asking questions and staying connected. Currently, most schools have a Facebook page that highlights special events and a calendar of events on the school's website that make information more readily accessible. Community partners have taken it a step further by utilizing local news and radio to publicize programming and events to broadcast additional resources and/or help for community members. However, parents have to be accountable for locating and searching for information that will assist with navigating the process.

How would you recommend a student approach the subject of college if their family has not historically had experience with a college education?

As soon as the student states that they aspire to attend college, they should immediately share that aspiration with someone that has successfully completed the process (teacher, guidance counselor, academic advisor, etc). By speaking to someone with informed experience, their expertise will not only help with short and long-term strategic planning, but it will also provide the student as well as his or her family with a resource to assist with understanding what the process entails and how to successfully navigate through the process.

How can students who have always had the expectation of going to college be advocates for those who haven't?

Pay it forward. Whether it be serving as a mentor or a volunteer, it is important to recognize that someone poured into you. Support and encouragement are undoubtedly the most important characteristics that will determine if a student applies to college. No matter where it comes from, students want to hear and know that their aspirations are possible.

What is one thing you would like to see all high schools adopt to help students who don't come from a traditional background apply and transition to college?

Cultural competency training. By understanding that a student's belief systems, values, behaviors, and outlook do not all align with the dominant culture, schools can better prepare faculty and administrators on how to meet the needs of diverse, underrepresented populations. Training should be an ongoing developmental series, not a four hour training.
In your opinion, how can colleges and universities improve their systems to help first generation, or under-supported students, have an easier transition?

Pre-collegiate programming, also known as bridge programs are designed to serve as a pre-college intervention to improve college readiness and reduce remediation, while promoting critical thinking and diversity of thought. It simulates the collegiate experience socially, culturally, and academically to prepare students for the rigors of college.

How do students become connected with your nonprofit or other nonprofits like yours?

Pre-college TRiO programs such as Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound serve first generation and low income students in grades six through 12. With more than 1,200 programs in the nation combined, hosted by institutions of higher education and nonprofit entities, parents and students must conduct research to locate a program in close proximity to their home. Application processes can vary in length, but the time to complete the application pales in comparison to the benefits a student will receive.

Nijinsky Dix

Assistant Director of TRiO Programs, University of Notre Dame

Nijinsky Dix is the assistant director of TRiO Programs at the University of Notre Dame where she assists marginalized students attain access to postsecondary education. Her experience includes the development and implementation of programming (pre-college/collegiate) that addresses academic competencies and/or deficiencies, as well as, social, economic, and personal barriers of first-generation, low-income students; cultivating and developing initiatives that create and foster a positive self-concept; empowering students to become more cognizant of their role as stakeholders, and most importantly, advising students on how to turn a liability into an asset. Nijinsky has also served on several professional committees to address equity, access, and educational advocacy for students of marginalized identities at Florida A&M University, the University of Illinois - Chicago, Lemoyne-Owen College, and the University of Notre Dame. Nijinsky is a two-time alumna of Florida A&M University and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.