News: College Access & Success

A Recent Graduate’s Perspective: How Higher Ed Institutions Can Better Support First-Gen Students

Wednesday, July 8, 2020  
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By María Guadalupe Romo-González, recent graduate of University of California, Berkeley and member of the LEDA Policy Corps

I vividly remember the day I moved to attend the University of California, Berkeley. I nervously waved goodbye to my father as he drove away after helping me unload my belongings into the crowded yet cozy room. Thanks to my parents’ encouragement, the preparation from taking rigorous courses in high school, and my drive to become a first-generation college student, I felt ready for this new chapter. I knew that I had what it took to get into Cal, but I soon began questioning if I had what it took to graduate.

I struggled with imposter syndrome and culture shock because I was surrounded by few students who shared similar cultural and economic backgrounds as mine and even fewer professors who looked like me and understood where I was coming from. The confident student that I once was disappeared as I anxiously sat in class, attempting each time to raise my sweaty palm to answer the professor’s question. The feeling that I didn’t fit in made it much easier to sit in the back rows of lecture halls, ask very few questions, and stick to an unhealthy routine: complete the assigned readings, show up to class, minimally engage with professors, repeat.

Weeks flew by, and feeling intimidated by my professors and peers intensified.

My experience struggling with imposter syndrome and navigating the social and cultural aspects of college is common for first-generation college students. Fifty-six percent of college students today are first-generation, but only 27.4% of first-generation students are graduating in four years.

Based on my own experience, this isn’t surprising. Shortly after that day when I arrived at Cal, it felt as if I was thrown into an Olympic-sized pool and was expected to survive without having even been taught how to float. After weeks of struggling, I soon realized that if I wanted to succeed at Cal, I had to fill in my gaps in social and cultural capital, which many of my peers were born into. I had to make sacrifices like putting visiting professors during their office hours before work and family responsibilities. Making these sacrifices is no small feat, but institutions can take steps to help ease the transition for students like me.

As I reflect on what would have made my college transition easier, there are a few things that I think would have made a difference for me. First, having the opportunity to take more classes with professors of color who are first-generation college graduates and can help create bridges for students without cultural capital. For example, I was intimidated to approach my professors in office hours — a sense of inferiority would strike me by the mere thought of attempting to hold a conversation with a professor. How was I supposed to approach an adult figure who is an expert in the field when it was my first time learning about the subject?

Thankfully, I soon heard of Berkeley Connect, a seminar section guided by a graduate student in the department of sociology, intended to support students as they navigate UC Berkeley. The intimate class setting, and the topics discussed throughout that semester paved my way to destigmatizing visiting professors during office hours and participating in larger class settings. It was a trial-and-error process, and it took many meetings with my graduate student mentor, whom I could relate more closely with as he identified as a Latinx first-generation college student.

Having a space for first-generation, low-income college students would have been helpful. Every day I walked around campus feeling like there were not other students like me. We might not be the majority of students, but I have learned that there are other FLI students on campus and have found solace in moments where I have been able to have open and honest conversations with my peers from a similar background. It was programs like Berkeley Connect that helped me get back to the student I was, but I found out about them later in college. And it wasn’t until I joined Cal-ADAR, a mentored research program for underrepresented students, that I felt comfortable reaching out for help.

When resources do exist, it’s important that colleges are actively engaging students and not waiting for them to reach out. We need to teach our first-generation and low-income students how to navigate the higher education system and reinforce in them that their uniqueness and upbringing are important, respected, and validated.

The month of May should have marked the end of my time at Berkeley through graduation celebrations. Since I arrived at UC Berkeley, I looked forward to my Latinx Graduation Ceremony, where I would cross the stage with my mom and dad by my side. While the global pandemic is beyond our control, my class of 2020 peers and I were cut short of many last moments — late-night study sessions, outings with friends, coffee runs, visits to the library. But we were also cut short from many first moments, as many of us are first-generation low-income students who would have been crossing that graduation stage for the first time. That we were unable to celebrate our accomplishments in person does not devalue our degree completion — it only reiterates how resilient we truly are to adapt and pivot to what life throws at us.

There are many barriers that first-generation low-income students face, and many more that will arise as we get through these unprecedented times. Now more than ever, it is important to draw attention to how necessary it is for institutions to establish or develop existing programs that increase access and awareness in supporting first-generation students who may feel hopeless and clueless, like I once did.