Colleges are beginning to recognize this issue. Many schools, like Williams College, bring their first generation first year students to campus early for pre-orientation programs. Student bodies are creating student run organizations for their first generation community members. However, organization members are finding a common problem on their campuses: visibility.
Entering Smith College, I had no idea which other members of my class were also first gen. Smith holds an orientation group for first gen students, but besides the eight (including myself) or so participants, I thought I was alone on campus. Our first generation student alliance struggles to keep a presence on campus. It’s difficult to hold bi-weekly meetings when so many of our members are working or making up school work they missed by having to work a job to afford college.
In response to this, F1GS (our first gen student organization) help a visibility week. From an identity photo op, a film screening, a first gen STEM faculty panel, to an ice cream social, our goal was to increase visibility on campus. There’s a need for other first gen students learn about their identity. Many students do not even know that they are first generation until they come to college and learn what sets them apart from their non-first gen peers. When I see someone walking around campus in a “Proud to be First” t-shirt, I feel more at ease. Visibility makes students realize that they are not alone in their struggles and that others have come before them.
On Saturday, Smith took part in the fourth annual First Generation College Student Summit at Williams College. Knowing that everyone around me was first gen, I felt part of a larger community. Seeing students who came from similar backgrounds as I did succeed and do great things. While there are many institutional changes colleges and universities must make to create a welcoming environment for first generation students, visibility is the first step. When students band together and identify as a group, changes can begin to be made.
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