“First generation” is a relatively new distinction on college campuses. Programs designed specifically for this group can be traced to the early 2000s, says Tina Wildhagen, an assistant professor of sociology with a book in the works on first-generation college students. Since 2013, Wildhagen has conducted interviews and done field observations at several colleges and universities to get a sense of how first-gen students’ identities differ in different settings. “The extent to which students identify as first generation and take it on as a label they are comfortable with is really variable across schools,” she says. “When there’s a good organizational structure for first-generation students, like we have at Smith … that really helps students to claim the identity and to be proud of it, rather than to be ashamed of it.”
At Smith, the support begins the moment they step on campus.
When they arrive: President Kathleen McCartney sets the tone by welcoming first-gen students with a group meeting at the president’s house. In a first-gen orientation program, they can learn about campus resources and begin to build a sense of community. “I focus a lot more on connections between them than I do on the heady stuff,” says assistant dean Marjorie Litchford, who organizes the program and is herself first gen. “Smithies are so heady already that, as much as they think they want to know about resources, they also really want to connect with other first gens and make friends and feel OK about being first gen.”
While they are students: The student-run F1GS (First Generation Student Alliance) connects students via Facebook, meetings and events like the Five College First Generation Mixer. In April, the group sponsored a first-gen visibility week with first-gen faculty panels, a film screening and a day for students, faculty and staff to wear first-gen T-shirts. “We want to let first-gen students know they’re not alone,” said F1GS president Helen Mayer ’17.
Because the financial aid process can be particularly daunting for first-gen students, who may have to complete the high-stakes applications without parental help, F1GS hosts information sessions with Smith’s financial aid director. And in the spring, juniors and seniors toast their academic successes at a first-gen dinner.
The faculty is gaining greater awareness via trainings for first-year advisers so they know about resources for, say, a student who might not have winter clothes or enough money to fix her glasses. Administrators say they are proud of what they offer, even as they look for unmet needs. Studying abroad, for example, can sometimes be difficult for first-gen students. Students also have to feel comfortable enough to ask for help and research what’s possible.
For McCartney, reaching first-gen students is an inherent part of Smith’s mission. “I’m acutely aware of the privilege higher education bestows,” she says. “I think that makes me want to do everything I can to make Smith the most equitable, inclusive campus possible.”
SAQ, Summer 2016