First-gen college students face unique challenges

When MaLeah Farmer stepped foot on the University of Memphis as a freshman, she was scared, because she was the first member of her family to attend college. Moving to Memphis to live on campus meant living in a city with nearly 100 times more residents than her hometown of Tiptonville, Tennessee.

Now Farmer is a senior heath administration major at the U of M. Her day consists of going to class, catching up on homework and working part-time at night. She said she has adjusted to the college life now, but it was not easy.

“When I was a freshman, being first-gen was really scary because no one in my family had this experience,” she said. “It was like jumping in blind and not really knowing how to do anything or what to expect entering the college experience.”

She experiences the same struggles many first generation students face entering college: balancing time, lack of preparation and culture shock.

In the United States roughly onethird of undergraduate students are first generation students, according to a study from the US Department of Education and Georgetown School of Public Policy.

Farmer said transitioning from high school to college was a challenge.

“The biggest thing for me was being more responsible for myself and not having my parents wake me up and make sure that I went to school,” she said. “I had to learn how to be more responsible and get up to go to class. It’s something I had to learn the hard way.”

Farmer said even when her parents were not around; they supported her from freshman year to today.

“They were definitely tough on me because they want me to get good grades to have this opportunity,” she said. “If it wasn’t for my scholarship with First Scholars, I probably wouldn’t be here because they can’t afford college by themselves.”

First-generation students have trouble learning how college works because they often have no one to guide them, according to Victoria Maher, graduate assistant for the First Scholars Program, which helps first-generation students receive scholarships to the University of Memphis.

Maher knows firsthand what it is like to be a first-generation student.

“When your parents don’t know what college is about, you’re pretty much on your own,” she said. “They rely a lot on themselves and their peers to see how college works.”

Many first-generation students are far from home, Maher said.

“Some people are from the east side of Tennessee, and they don’t have anyone else to talk to except for us,” she said. “So there are a lot of barriers. Completing the FAFSA, financial aid, and some even ask what’s a bursar. They don’t know that college lingo until they get here.”

Maher said another huge issue among most first-generation students is culture shock.

“Coming to a city like Memphis, typically a metropolitan area, can definitely be a culture shock,” she said. “Having a different kind of schedule, students are used to going to school from 7 to 2. They are used to that in high school, going to class every day opposed to going to class for an hour and a half twice a week.”

Parents of first-generation students expect for their child to continue the same schedule they had in high school, according to Maher.

“Parents want them to come home every weekend, and it is not possible because they have jobs and other obligations,” she said. “It’s definitely a challenge because it not like high school you have a lot more work to do. Get by and get those good grades, and that is a challenge for the students and the parent.”

Maher also added that an open door policy could be another solution to helping first generation students succeed.

“There is a lot of training going on for the faculty, like open door policies for those students, recognizing when they are in dire need and when they are not attending class,” Maher said. “Statistically, if one faculty or staff helps the student, they are more likely to return.”

Charles Frame, program coordinator of the First Scholars Program, said first-generation students primarily have to learn the lingo of college. He said it was going to be a hurdle for anyone just because of the way courses are structured.

“When you play a sport or learn about a new sport, that’s kind of how college is,” Frame said. “That may be new to those students from high school, when a teacher teaches you a topic, you go home, you do your homework, and they move on. Well that’s flipped here in most cases. In here you’re expected to learn outside the classroom. A lot of first-generation students in general face those challenges. There are obvious social and cultural pieces about coming to college that might be different than where they came from.”

Frame said he tries to help students understand what is going on and advise them to not expect a big payoff.

“There is a lot a pressure for the student to go to college from their family,” he said. “You have pressure that you’re going to get this education and you’re going to get that high-paying job. A lot of the students come in to look to go into nursing or engineering, but those are areas that take a lot of work and are pretty cohort; those are classes you need a strong background in sciences. You really have to find out who you really are instead of a giant paycheck.”

Three out of five first-generation students drop out of college within the first six years, according to the Department of Education. Only 15 percent of first-generation students graduate with a bachelor’s degree and 10 percent with an associate degree.

Nearly half dropped out and do not return, the same study from the Department of Education stated.

Matthew Haught, the first-generation student advocate of the College of Fine Arts and Communications, said first-generation students do not have the best support system at home.

“Its not that their parents don’t love them or have the finances to help them,” Haught said. “The experience of a first-generation student means that your family doesn’t necessarily understand what it takes for you to succeed in college. Those things are issues.”

According to Haught, parents don’t realize the time commitment and the expectations for homework, extra curricular activities and study time. First generation students can carry a load of responsibility, and it is a tough choice for the students.

“If the first-generation student has to carry a lot of the family responsibility, it creates a struggle for them,” Haught said. “They have to choose if they are going to help their family or going to do the work they need to succeed in college. That is a really tough choice because you’re going to let somebody down, either your family or yourself.”

Haught said faculty should find whom the first-generation students are, so they can know when a struggle exists and can approach these issues head on in the classroom without prompting.

“The best thing for faculty to do is to recognize that these issues exist and to be able to talk to students about them,” he said. “It’s not a lowering of standards, it’s an ongoing conversation to think about this student, and how this student can succeed.”

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