First-generation students find connections
When Jacob Robinson became a Hokie, he also became a pioneer.
“It's a matter of finding my own way and that's pretty much how first gens are, you have to find your own way,” said the junior, who is double majoring in psychology and sociology.
The first generation of his family to attend college, Robinson is one a handful of students from similar backgrounds on the advisory committee for 1st Generation at Virginia Tech (1G@VT), a club dedicated to tackling the challenges of this population of students.
“Because we don't have family that went to college, they didn't know much about it. So we come here not knowing anything, not knowing the resources that are offered to us, and we're kind of left behind compared to the other students here on campus,” said Khaila Ellis, a senior food science major and fellow committee member.
Last year, the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) recognized the unique and at times overlooked situations first-generation college students face and declared Nov. 8 First-Generation Celebration Day.
The Virginia Tech organization was founded prior to the COE declaration when Sarah Umbarger-Wells, assistant director for the Virginia Tech Talent Search Program, also saw the unique situations of many first-generation Hokies. She helped start 1G@VT in January 2017.
A first-generation college graduate herself, Umbarger-Wells said students who are the first people in their families to attend a university not only face a new environment, but an entirely new language, often foreign to both them and their support systems back home.
The group is one of hundreds of student organizations available at Virginia Tech and one that strikes a personal chord with Vice President for Student Affairs Patty Perillo.
“We celebrate the unique strengths and talents of our first-generation students,” Perillo said. “We are committed to offering opportunities, services, and resources that unlock the vast potential of our first-gen students. I know what is possible for I was one, too!”
Before joining 1G@VT, Ellis depended on peers and acquaintances to fill information gaps, such as the timing for signing a lease for off-campus housing.
“I had roommates, and their families had been to Tech, so everything I know about housing came from their families. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have known what to do,” Ellis said.
Fellow committee member Maggie Turbyfill said she found it best to simply avoid having such conversations with her family all together.
“My mom doesn’t know any of my financial information or my housing information,” said Turbyfill, a senior finance major. “I don't ask her and I don't tell her because she just wouldn't know how to help me with it.”
Some students have found the lack of familiarity with higher education language can even make sharing positive experiences stressful.
“They [my family] don't really understand what we talk about when we talk about college. You know, meeting the vice president of student affairs is a good thing, not a bad thing and stuff like that,” said JT Addair, a junior majoring in public relations. “Having to explain it every time you have a success is a big thing.”
The group helps students gain both the knowledge and the support many families are unable to provide by meeting on a regular basis and routinely inviting people from across the university to speak to the group about different resources and campus issues.
Their hope is to create an environment in which future first-generation students are aware they’re not alone and know where to turn for assistance in adjusting to university life.
“When the next group comes in, it will be good for them to know that they're not the only ones feeling like they're lost,” Ellis said. “They've had someone before them that can help them out.”