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

First-generation students are students that are first in their family to attend college and attain a four-year degree. To me, a first-generation student means “a diamond in the rough”. They are oftentimes extremely bright and talented, but have not had the resources to truly shine. They are unique because their lived experiences are so different from traditional students. This allows for robust classroom discussions and critical discourse.

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

Legacy students grow up knowing they are going to college. It is discussed and planned for beginning at an early age. It is the expectation. For some first-generation students, there is no expectation. Perhaps the expectation is to work and contribute to household expenses or to seek a suitable suitor who will take care of them. In homes where first-generation students are being encouraged by parents/family to attend college, the parents/family member often lack the financial resources to assist their student and do not understand processes such as admissions, orientations, completing FAFSA, etc. Once admitted, first-generation students face enormous pressure as the “first” in their family to attend college. They often view this as the one and ONLY shot they have to succeed in life. As a result, they work twice as hard to meet their goals.

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?

Yes, I agree with this statement. Some first-generation students have a clear idea of what they want to study and what profession they want to work in. However, they don’t know what path to follow to get there and don’t know how they will be able to afford it (especially if they are interested in medical school or law school or careers that require a great deal of education or terminal degree). For other first-generation students, they have no idea what career they want to pursue or what program of study to enroll in. The unknown is what creates the insecurity and leads to a lack of confidence. First-generation students need mentoring from other first-generation students or professionals that can help them see that they too can be successful. They also need people that are dedicated to helping them navigate transition from high school to college and every year there on after through graduation.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

  • Acclimating to the collegiate environment and feeling like they belong
  • “Survivor’s guilt”, meaning they sometimes feel guilty for moving ahead in life and leaving loved ones or friends behind
  • Academically underprepared -- many attend schools in low socio economic districts and don’t have access to college preparatory courses
  • Financial instability
  • Balancing school, work, and family

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

How to ask for help. Perhaps because they are embarrassed to admit they do not understand certain processes or they are ashamed that they are struggling academically or financially. By the time they request help, it can be too late, or the initial challenge is compounded with more challenges.

How to manage money. Since many first-generation students come from low socio-economic backgrounds, they can often find themselves covering expenses for other people in their family or becoming eager to purchase items they may not necessarily need in the moment. Helping them create a budget and to plan for the future is critical.

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?

In some cases, the family is the driving force. For example, parents who wish they had the opportunity to attain an education and unfortunately were not able to. For some, the motivation comes from teachers or counselors that encourage them to see opportunity outside of the environment they are living in. For others, it’s the search of an escape from the environment they are currently living in. The desire to have more than their parents could provide for them and to hopefully help their family long-term.

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?

From the minute they enter the educational system (pre-school). It takes time to cultivate confidence in a child. If the school environment doesn’t prove to be different than the environment they are growing up in, then it becomes difficult to imagine something different. Colleges and universities should look for creative ways to partner with K-12 public schools in underserved communities. For instance, education minors could be involved in reading to children or with children at all levels. Efforts should be made to develop hands-on field trip experiences for children to gain exposure to college campuses. Summer enrichment programs can be developed to assist bridge the educational gap utilizing graduate students or teacher assistants. In addition, when planning orientations or open houses, consider sessions specifically for first-generation students and their parents or family members. Parents and family members will oftentimes want to be involved, yet don’t know how to support their student.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations? 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?

The best way to support first-generation students is to truly know the challenges first-generation students face and not making assumptions about what they “should know”. By understanding the experiences and challenges of first-generation students, you can make pedagogical changes in the classroom.

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

Developing programs that bring first-generation students together and allow them to connect to the larger institution, especially faculty and administrative staff that were also first-generation students. When a first-generation student has contact and conversations with successful individuals that were first-generation, it is uplifting and empowering for them. In addition, developing orientation sessions, introduction to college courses, and workshops specifically for first-generation students. This provides them with a safe space to ask questions they wouldn’t normally ask in a session that included legacy students. Also, incorporating co-curricular components in first-generation programs, such as leadership opportunities, service-learning projects, research. First-generation students are passionate about making a difference. Getting them involved in meaningful high impact experiences motivates them to persist in their educational journey.

What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

List the resources we offer in the office of first-generation student success including the registered student organization since the org is what brings them together.

Ron Oliver

Director of First-Generation Student Success at FAU

Ron Oliver joined Florida Atlantic University's staff as the director of basketball operations in May 2014 before being elevated to assistant coach in the spring of 2016. In April of 2018, Ron was named director of first-generation student success. He brings over 20 years of coaching experience at both the college and NBA level.

He served as an advanced scout for the Philadelphia 76ers and was the assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons and the Toronto Raptors. An Arkansas native, Mr. Oliver has over two decades of professional and leadership experience. In addition to FAU, Mr. Oliver was employed by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. During his tenure at Ball State University and at FAU, Mr. Oliver was instrumental in advising and mentoring student-athletes of underrepresented at-risk populations, including first-generation and low socio-economic students. As a life coach, Mr. Oliver has empowered professionals and students with effective strategies to meet individualized goals and to develop critical life skills such as endurance, persistence, and resiliency.

Mr. Oliver holds a bachelor in kinesiology and movement science from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where he was a four-year letterman for the wolverines men’s basketball team and was a student leader in the elite Michigamua Society. He is currently pursuing a master’s in education from Northcentral University. In his spare time, Mr. Oliver enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife and five children.