The Voice of the First Generation
You’re In, Now What?
“I never thought in a million years I would go to a four-year college right after high school,” said Aaliyah Quinones ‘22, a senior liberal studies major at Holy Names University. For Quinones, going to college had always felt like a dream that was out of reach for her and her family. It wasn’t until she received an HNU admissions package with “You’re In” emblazoned on the cover that she began to think of college as something she could do.
Quinones is just one of the many first-generation students at HNU. A full 37 percent of HNU’s students are considered first-generation, meaning their parents or guardians did not complete a four-year college degree.
“Neither of my parents had an opportunity to attend college and they struggled because of that,” said Quinones. “Their love and sacrifice allowed me to stay focused on my education.”
First-generation college students work hard to succeed in high school, graduate, and get accepted to a college. The excitement of reaching this milestone is frequently overshadowed by the looming unknowns and challenges of starting college.
“Students who enroll in a college have to overcome huge hurdles first: admissions applications, financial aid, navigating the enrollment process,” explained Elizabeth Mihopoulos, VP for Enrollment Management. “These hurdles can be especially intimidating for first-gen students who, even as teenagers, are frequently navigating the process with little support or guidance.”
Determined to attend college, Savannah Vasquez ‘21, a first-generation HNU alumna, remembers how daunting the college application process was. While her family provided constant emotional support, it was up to Vasquez to take care of the details. “College wasn’t even a conversation in our house,” she said. “I had to figure it all out by myself.” She remembers that her HNU enrollment counselor had to explain what “financial aid” was. “After I was accepted into HNU, I had to go back to campus to have another conversation on how to pay for it. Luckily, I got a lot of help from scholarships.”
Figuring out how to pay for college can be the most difficult part of starting college for first-generation students. Tuition and non-tuition costs such as housing, food, transportation, and textbooks add up quickly. A study published by the Center for First-Generation Student Success found that first-generation students are far less likely to get financial support from their parents for education, and more likely to fund their education through a job, loans, scholarships, and credit cards.
“My mom raised me to be independent,” explained HNU student Matthew Garcia ‘23. “I read through everything multiple times before signing anything. I wanted to make sure I understood what I was getting myself into. It was important for me to look at the numbers, and understand the monetary risk and benefit to attending school.” He added, “That’s actually why I ended up choosing HNU. Not only was I getting the best education to help me develop, but financially I felt very supported.”
To help students navigate all their options and available resources, HNU provides incoming students with financial aid workshops and one-on-one financial counseling sessions.
Elizabeth Mihopoulos is glad that HNU is continually improving on ways to better support students’ transition into college life. “I think we can go further in eliminating barriers and making the whole process seamless and transparent for our incoming students,” she said. “We really need to take a look at our processes from their perspective and make sure we are always student-centered.”
A Year of Firsts
The first year of college is critical for all students, but especially for first-generation students who are still actively assessing the value of college. These students want to make sure the investment of time and money is worth it, and they want to know that they’ll be academically successful.
Monica Garcia, Academic Advisor and Director of Advising and Learning Resources, was a first-generation student in her family. She understands the fear of not knowing how to navigate the college ecosystem. She and her team act as academic tour guides for new students. “We are always thinking about how we can translate complex, overwhelming information and make it more accessible for our students,” she explained.
Her work is embedded within the Connections Project, HNU’s First-Year Experience Program, which provides information, support, mentorship, and other campus connections for first-year students. Having this extra focus on building campus connections and accessing resources is indispensable for first-generation students, as they do not have their parents’ know-how to fall back on.
At the beginning of each academic year, HNU presents a panel of first-generation alumni and staff, who share their experiences and help students understand the value they bring to HNU’s community.
Each first-year student is also paired with a returning student, who provides ongoing support through weekly check-ins, as part of HNU’s Peer Mentor program.
First-generation students are diverse in their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, educational background, and geographic location. This diversity makes it important to provide personalized experiences and one-on-one support.
“Many of our students come here uncertain what college is going to be like, and our First-Year Experience program helps them meet students like themselves who have been successful,” said Casey LaBarbera, Director for New Student Programs, Involvement & Leadership.
“I feel like my peer mentors gave 110%—they were invested. They took their time to work with me,” recalls Matthew Garcia, a kinesiology major and psychology minor at HNU. One of Garcia’s peer mentors and fellow first-generation student, Savannah Vasquez, made a huge impact on him. “She made the transition easier because I could go to her when I felt depressed, or homesick, or stressed … she always took the time to listen and help me process.” Garcia is now a peer mentor himself.
The balancing act
While attending college, first-generation students are frequently juggling important—and at times conflicting—responsibilities. Prioritization can be difficult.
“Our students are pulled in many different directions,” LaBarbera observed. “They have family responsibilities, jobs, school work, internships, volunteer work, and extracurriculars to keep up with.”
While many first-generation students are going to college to help support their families in the long term, those families may not understand the demands of college in the short term. LaBarbera added, “It’s so important for us to help our students connect their college life with their family and work lives.”
“The more a student is connected to campus the more likely they are going to stay and graduate. It impacts their mental health and it’s this process that can all be affected by someone feeling like they belong or that they have a greater sense of purpose on campus,” said Garysha Youngblood ‘16, MA ’19, (pictured right) a two-time first-generation HNU alumna—first to get a bachelor’s and first to get a graduate degree.
While first-generation students’ parents may not have direct experience of the ins-and-outs of college life, their encouragement and support are crucial to student success.
To help parents get involved and get some exposure to their students’ new realities, HNU offers parent-focused learning sessions and workshops at new student orientation. Family members are invited to participate in the University’s Rite of Passage ceremony and other campus traditions. Additionally, parents or guardians who feel inspired by their students’ college journey are encouraged to take two college-level courses for free through HNU’s Parent Promise program.
“There was never a question about getting a college education. There was just a question as to how,” explained HNU first-generation alumna Jasmine Vidaurri Martinez ‘15 (featured below). Martinez recalls her father working 15-hour days in the construction field, often juggling two to three different jobs, and her mother managing family responsibilities and Martinez’ many extracurricular activities. “Thinking back now, I realize how difficult it must have been for my parents, how much they sacrificed, to move our family forward in that sense. I think they felt that if they got us to the next point, they did everything right.”
As role models in their families and communities, first-generation students often feel pressure to be successful in college and fulfill family dreams. With these high expectations and a limited financial safety net, students often feel like mistakes are not an option, and they may not understand that asking for help is an option.
The National Center for First-Generation Student Success found that first-generation students were significantly less likely to use campus academic advising and academic support services than continuing-generation students.
“How do we make sure our first-generation students know about the resources we have for them?” asked Laura Lyndon, VP for Student Affairs. “This is a question we are always asking ourselves and asking our students. We want to be flexible and make adjustments that will help to meet the students where they are at.” Some successful initiatives have been as simple as expanding office hours and offering virtual meeting opportunities.
When Youngblood came back to HNU to get her Master’s in Counseling and Forensic Psychology, she worked as New Student Programs and Leadership Graduate Assistant and put together programs that focused on building community and sharing resources.
Youngblood could relate to the pressure students were under and their drive. Coming from a large family, she said, “I felt like if I failed we were all going to fail. And my mom gave up a lot, so if I failed then all of her sacrifices would have been for nothing.” Youngblood hoped the rest of her family would see her success and know that they could do it too.
Taking the Lead
Once they adapt to college life, first-generation students are often eager to help students who may be struggling and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Many take on leadership and mentorship roles on campus.
To name just a few of their roles: Vasquez served as ASHNU student body president in 2020-21. Quinones is currently serving as ASHNU student body president. Youngblood was vice president of her senior class and president of the Black Student Union.
Garcia is a peer mentor and resident assistant. “There are so many new challenges and opportunities for first-year students. I want to be the type of leader that helped me when I first started college,” said Garcia. “I had an amazing experience and that’s something I want to pass on.”
Martinez, now a second-year law student at George Washington University, says her biggest hope “is that I can somehow be a mentor, resource, or just an inspiration, to other first-generation students.”
Elevating first-generation student voices is essential to helping guide new students, shape policies and procedures that will improve graduation rates, and ensure that all students are successful in college and beyond.
“When I think back on my time at HNU,” said Vasquez, “I see that they were some of the hardest times and also the best four years of my life.”