As the flurries stuck to her hair and dusted the tops of illuminated jack-o-lanterns sitting on front porch steps, then freshman Kayla Cornett realized just how far away from her home she was.
Growing up in Ava, Missoui, six hours south of Maryville, Cornett had never seen snow before December, much less as early as Halloween, and she was struck by a pang of homesickness.
The first of her family to attend college, Cornett came from a high-poverty school district where many of her classmates did not have plans to apply to colleges, much less move so far away from home to go to college.
She said her dream job required a degree and her parents encouraged her to go to college, but she also had something to prove.
“Another big factor — probably the biggest — was wanting to be the first generation college student,” Cornett said. “I really wanted to break that cycle in my family.”
At the fall 2019 academic meeting Aug. 16, Provost Jamie Hooyman said preliminary data indicated this year’s freshman class has Northwest’s highest-ever percentage of first-generation students. The exact percentage, however, will not be confirmed until the completion of the University census later this month.
Executive Director of Student Recruiting Jeremy Waldeier said recruiting first-generation students has always been a goal at Northwest, and this year it showed.
“Many of our alumni and current students are first generation college students, and we want to continue with that focus,” Waldeier said. “The most impactful experience for me is seeing students who believed college wasn’t possible or they couldn’t make it to walk across the stage at graduation.”
Sophomore Emily Graham followed in her parents’ footsteps by coming to Northwest, but doubt plagued her at the start of her journey to accomplish what they hadn’t, getting her degree.
Graham said her parents married young and left Northwest before either graduated, but always kept their ties to Northwest. The family took many road trips from their hometown of Elkhorn, Nebraska, to campus throughout Graham’s childhood. She said it felt like a second home.
Second home or not, Graham said the first month of her freshman year was a lonely one, and she second-guessed her decision.
“I was scared, no lie,” Graham said. “That first month of my freshman year, I sat in my room and cried a lot. I considered moving back home and going to college there.”
Graham said the decision to go to college was just as nerve-racking as moving two and a half hours away from home. She poured everything she had into her dream of being an English teacher, and she had no back-up plan if she wasn’t accepted.
She said she doesn’t regret taking a chance on Northwest. Graham said as difficult as it was to drift apart from childhood friends, those who were worth keeping stayed, and she met new friends to lean on as she grows.
“I have grown so much as a person through this sudden push into the adult world and independence,” Graham said. “I have more strength in me than I thought, this past year has been rough in my personal life, but I can honestly say that I know myself better than ever at this point in my life.”
Cornett said a challenge she felt was unique to first-generation college students is the pressure to succeed.
“Your family can't really tell you what to expect, and they are wanting to see you succeed, so naturally you want to graduate and get a degree,"” Cornett said. “That can get a little tough sometimes, but at the end of the day, you just want to prove to yourself and your family that you can, and will, get that degree.”
Waldeier said the challenge in recruiting first-generation students is working with students and their families to overcome the anxiety of applications, especially when they start the college search process later than other students.
“We really focus on helping the families overcome this stress by being in constant contact with the families to answer any questions they may have or help with the enrollment process,” Waldeier said. “Also, we are working with students earlier in their high school career to help inform students when they should start the college search process and what steps to take to make college possible.”
Sophomore Vanessa Purcell said only about half of her classmates at her small high school in Sandberry, Missouri, planned to go to college, but her parents wanted her to have more opportunities than they had and encouraged her to apply.
“When applying, it was definitely different because my parents didn’t really know how college applications work or how the FAFSA worked, or really any of the processes that come with applying to colleges,” Purcell said. “I kind of had to do a lot of it on my own.”
Purcell said she got involved in the Upward Bound branch of the TRiO program, which helps low-income and first-generation students to apply to colleges, apply for scholarships and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The Upward Bound program also brings a group of students to Northwest for five weeks every summer to live on campus, take classes, eat at the dining hall and experience campus as students do.
Graham said she thinks Northwest’s support system is what draws students who are intimidated by the idea of being the first in their family to go to college.
“The whole staff here is working to do their best to make sure that every student has what they need to succeed,” Graham said. “I also think that first-generation students are drawn to the small town and the tight knit groups on campus.”
Director of Academic Success and Retention Allison Hoffmann said while a gap still exists between first-generation and not first-generation students in retention, that gap has narrowed in the last several years.
“A number of factors have changed in recent years that likely contribute to an increase in retention rates,” Hoffmann said. “A few include professional advising for first-year students accompanied by secondary faculty advisors, changes in scholarship renewal requirements to promote retention and an increased focus by the entire campus community on student success, retention and graduation.”
Hooyman said she hopes Northwest’s individualized approach makes a difference for students in their college experience.
“If I was a first-generation student, I would want a place that I could fit in; I would want a place where I could feel comfortable and where people care enough to answer my questions,” Hooyman said. “I think Northwest does that really well.”