The Student Success Center in conjunction with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted the second installment of its First-Generation Focus series Feb. 18 in the J.W. Jones Student Union Ballroom featuring a panel of five first-generation students answering faculty and staff questions about their experiences.
With enrollment of first-generation students at Northwest reaching an all-time high of 38% this year, the series is part of the University’s partnership with American Association of State Colleges and Universities in an effort to retain and graduate first-generation students, who do not succeed at as high of rates as non-first-generation students.
Director of Academic Success and Retention Allison Hoffmann said the aim of the event was to learn directly from first-generation students about their experiences and challenges so faculty and staff can help those students overcome those barriers.
In selecting the panelists, Hoffmann said she and Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion Justin Mallett wanted to bring forward students from different years and different backgrounds.
“We felt it was really important to have some students who were from rural backgrounds and also some students who were from more of an urban area,” Hoffmann said. “And so we really tried to ensure we had students from different majors and different backgrounds but all with that common theme of first-generation.”
The 10 questions for the panelists were selected from submissions by the attendees of the first event in the series Jan. 22.
Panel member and Northwest senior Asma Hassan, Student Senate president and a psychology and human services major, grew up in Liberty, Missouri, but her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia after she was born in order to give her and her siblings a chance to attend American universities.
She teared up when talking about coping with barriers and said reaching out for help from her advisers when she felt overwhelmed and alone was difficult for her.
“It’s a very big thing to be that courageous, and at that moment in time, I just remember I was super stressed out about everything,” Hassan said. “I think my stress elevated too because I had the idea of the weight of my family too. We came into this country to get an education, and I have to succeed, and I have to do this not only for myself, but for my family also. … I can’t fail; I can’t.”
Hassan said she found support in her siblings when she didn’t feel she could discuss challenges with her parents.
Panel member senior Alica Trotter, an applied health sciences major, said she’s had little family support throughout college. She said she is not on speaking terms with her mother and not receiving financial support from either of her parents.
In addition to financial aid issues, which panelists sophomores Haley Endsley and Ryan Shurvington said was a major barrier for them, Trotter said she had difficulty adjusting to living on campus.
“I did not have fun living on campus,” Trotter said. “My first-year anxieties stemmed from my roommate and neighbors surrounding. They weren’t nice; it was hard to understand why people treated me that way.”
Trotter said she also saved money by living off campus because she was accustomed to working and was able to pay rent rather than needing more financial aid for on-campus housing.
Mallett pointed out that when discussing their experiences with Residential Life, the white students on the panel had positive experiences and the underrepresented students on the panel had mostly negative experiences.
Trotter said separating students in the residence halls so they’re only interacting with students like themselves would be a bad move, but the roommate selection process could be improved.
“I think actually taking the time to where someone can meet their roommate in a more personal way than through an email or through a Facebook message or a 25-question quiz,” Trotter said. “That’s not personable; that’s not normal. Internet dating isn’t normal, so I feel like throwing kids together through the internet isn’t normal either.”
She said it would also benefit incoming freshmen if they could contact their residential assistant, BRIDGE and hall director before move-in day to have that point of contact if they have questions or concerns.
Freshman Savion Robinson, a human services major with a business minor, said he also had roommate problems, but coming to Maryville from Kansas City was a huge culture shock.
Another difference between underrepresented and non-underrepresented students on the panel was their perception of being a first-generation student.
Hassan said she didn’t realize she was a first-generation student until she was an upperclassman at Northwest. Trotter also didn’t know what the term meant until she got to the University but immediately got a negative impression about the up-and-coming buzzword.
“When I first came here, and when it was found out that first generation was a new thing, it was kind of used in a negative connotation, when people found out that you were a first-generation student,” Trotter said. “It was more along the lines of like, ‘Oh, so how did you get here if nobody went to college before you?’”
With the non-underrepresented students, they saw it as more of a positive thing. Shurvington, an agricultural education major from a small town outside of Springfield, Missouri, said he saw it as starting a positive cycle for future generations.
Endsley, an international business major with a minor in diversity, equity and inclusion from the St. Louis, Missouri, area, said she sees it as a motivation and a challenge.
“I really view as a positive thing, because it’s what keeps me going, and when I talk to my parents about it, and I say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to drop out,’ as a joke, they said, ‘No, you’re going to keep going; you got it,’” Endsley said.
Inside the classroom, the panelists said all they wanted from faculty was for them to be understanding when first-generation students struggle during their freshman year and for faculty to check in if it’s apparent they are not succeeding.
“I’d say always reach out, because we’re always fighting a silent battle that we really don’t want to talk about, probably from home or here,” Robinson said.
In terms of accessing resources for first-generation students on campus, the panelists agreed that a lot of information is dumped on them during Advantage Week, which most can’t remember. Hassan, Trotter and Endsley all said they only became aware of the resources available to them once they began working for the University in the Student Involvement Center, as a SOAR leader and as a student ambassador, respectively.
Although the panelists spent nearly the entire hour of the event answering the questions from session one and there was no time for roundtable discussion, cards were left on the table for attendees to leave any questions or discussion points for the next session.
The first session, which took a broad look at first-generation students in higher education, took place on a day when Maryville Public Schools were closed. Hoffmann said she was pleasantly surprised by the 70 faculty and staff who still attended in spite of the weather. Around the same number attended the second session.
Hoffmann said faculty and staff are welcome to attend sessions three and four, even if they did not attend either of the first two.