First in the family
On their paths to graduation, many first-generation students must contend with a variety of structural and social barriers. A slate of Virginia Tech programs supports them as they strive for success. Part 2 of a two-part series.
This is Part 2 of a two-part series exploring the experiences of first-generation students at Virginia Tech. Be sure to read Part 1 if you haven’t already.
“Everyone became a Hokie overnight. Even my dog has a little VT sweater now!”
That’s how Ellie Mangan ’25 described the reaction her family had when she received her offer of acceptance from Virginia Tech.
This fall, Mangan will begin her first semester as a college student. It’s an exciting and somewhat intimidating moment for any student, but for Mangan, whose family is in the process of relocating from Florida to Virginia, it has an additional significance: It’s the beginning of her journey to become first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
That distinction places her among thousands of fellow Hokies considered to be “first-generation” — students for whom neither of their parents or guardians have four-year degrees from a college or university, though they may have some college experience, an associate’s degree, or other types of professional training or certifications.
For many first-generation college students, the path from their first day on campus to graduation presents them with a challenging uphill journey. National statistics suggest that first-generation students graduate at a significantly lower rate than their non-first-generation peers; a 2011 study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA showed that, after four years at a college or university in the United States, only 27.4 percent of first-generation students had earned a degree, compared with 42.1 percent of students from families where at least one parent has a college degree.
The Center for First-generation Student Success honored Virginia Tech as one of their "First-gen Forward" institutions in 2020.
“Most higher education institutions were not designed with first-generation students in mind,” said Deana Waintraub Stafford, associate director of the Center for First-generation Student Success, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., that conducts research and advocates on behalf of first-generation students.
Waintraub Stafford said a number of barriers, including access to financial resources and a lack of support in navigating the sometimes overwhelming and often jargon-filled world of higher education, place additional burdens on first-generation students compared to students with degree-holding parents or guardians.
A slate of innovative programs at Virginia Tech is aimed at helping ease those burdens. With the generous philanthropic support of first-generation alumna Paula Robichaud ’77, the Office of First-Generation Student Support, along with a variety of other initiatives and departments throughout the university, is working to ensure that first-generation students get the resources and support they need to thrive at Virginia Tech.
The effort is proving effective. Despite national statistics indicating a much lower graduation rate for first-generation students, the first-generation Hokies in the Class of 2021 remained enrolled at the university at close to the same rate as their classmates from degree-holding families — 85 percent of first-generation students who enrolled for their first semester in the fall of 2017 were still enrolled or had already graduated by spring semester 2021, compared with 88.5 percent of non-first-generation students.
Tamara Cherry-Clarke, who was herself a first-generation college student, took over this month as assistant dean of students for first-generation student support and program director for the GenerationOne living-learning community.
“It’s really about connecting and supporting first-generation students as early as possible,” Cherry-Clarke said. “That’s why it’s so important for this community to be identified and to have resources that meet their needs. Having that support can be the difference between successfully completing their degrees and not.”
Cherry-Clarke, who has been working to help first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students succeed in higher education for more than a decade, said that she values seeing the students she works with develop the skills and confidence they need to achieve their academic and career goals.
“I love being a part of that journey,” she said. “I have former mentees from all of my previous institutions that stay in touch to let me know they’re doing well. One of them just gave my son his COVID vaccine. It’s great to see them continuing along their journeys.”
For Mangan, the journey toward success in higher education began long before she ever applied to Virginia Tech.
“My whole life we lived near this community college,” she said, “and when my mom and I would drive past it I would tell her, ‘I want to go to college!’ I knew I wanted to go since I was little.”
Mangan anticipates some challenges but is also excited to explore new opportunities as a college student.
“I’m a bit nervous in general,” she said, “I’ve never really been away from home before. I never went to summer camp or anything like that. But I’m excited to get to experience something new and meet new people, especially after this past year.”
When she arrives on campus for her first semester this August, Mangan will find that Virginia Tech is as ready as it has ever been to help her and her fellow first-generation Hokies succeed on their paths to graduation.
Not Alone Here
Once they arrive on campus for their first semester of classes, first-generation students are faced with an array of new barriers they must overcome as they try to gain their academic and social footing at the university. Chief among them: learning to navigate the world of higher education.
One approach to bridging this gap is a new effort to create a space on campus for first-generation students to find the answers to these questions together, with guidance from faculty drawing on a mix of expert knowledge and personal experience.
GenerationOne, the university’s newest living-learning community, will welcome its initial cohort this fall. Based in Pritchard Hall, it will bring together a group of first-generation students navigating their first year at Virginia Tech together.
"It’s important for new first-generation students to get to know upperclassmen they can see themselves in, who can serve as examples of the success they themselves can have.”
Students participating in GenerationOne will be paired with a mentor who is a first-generation junior or senior and can answer questions and share insights from their own experiences navigating the university. GenerationOne peer mentoring will build on the success of the Hokies First peer mentoring program, a project of the Dean of Students Office.
“Mentors are essential,” Cherry-Clarke said. “They are the GPS for their mentees, helping to chart the course for success and recovering from wrong turns and dead ends. Mentors help students develop their toolkit of skills and knowledge that will help them be successful in college and beyond. It’s important for new first-generation students to get to know upperclassmen they can see themselves in, who can serve as examples of the success they themselves can have.”
First-generation students living in GenerationOne will also participate in History of the First-Generation Identity, a one-credit course on the historical contributions of first-generation college students and the ways that higher education has historically intersected with race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity.
“We wanted to make this course something students could do to understand their own place in the university and explore what it means to be a first-generation student,” said Professor Brett Shadle, the chair of the Department of History. He will teach this new course in collaboration with Associate Professor Dennis Halpin, the department’s associate chair.
“Both Dennis and I were first-generation students ourselves,” Shadle said. “It’s not necessarily something that I’ve explored in my own scholarship, but the idea was intriguing.”
Shadle said he hopes “students will emerge from the course with a historical sense that some of the struggles they are facing are not new ones and that what they're going through is connected to other people in other times and places.”
The GenerationOne living-learning community has been made possible by the expertise, hard work, and dedication of a passionate team of professionals like Cherry-Clarke and her predecessor as director for first-generation student success, Charmaine Troy; teaching-and-research faculty like Shadle and Halpin; and even a number of first-generation students themselves.
As members of the community’s steering committee, first-generation Hokies Elizabeth Owusu ’22 and Christina Ju ’21 helped shape what the GenerationOne experience will look like.
A rising senior, Owusu is pursuing a double major in sociology and political science. After finishing her degree, she hopes to go on to study civil rights law.
Owusu chose to come to Virginia Tech because she felt it would offer her the best opportunity to make connections that would help her in her professional life. “I was really excited to be a part of the social and professional world of Virginia Tech,” she said.
Owusu also reflected on what it was like to discuss her experiences at college with her family.
“It's challenging sometimes to explain aspects of the college culture to my parents,” she said. “I remember struggling to get them to understand what a class ring is, and why the design of it being revealed mattered. Those traditions are just not something they have experience with.
“I definitely want to make sure students embrace their first generation identity,” Owusu added. “I want them to know that there are resources here that are meant for them.”
Ju, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s in psychology, says her parents emphasized education from an early age.
“They really understand the difficulty that comes with not having a degree, and they wanted me to have the sense of security and stability that graduating from college would help me achieve,” Ju said.
She chose Virginia Tech because she had a cousin that was already enrolled, and knew several other people from her high school that were planning to attend.
“I didn’t really know much about what college life was supposed to be like,” Ju recalled. “Other people I knew grew up in families with connections to universities, they went to Virginia Tech football games and things like that. My family didn’t do that, so I didn’t really know what college culture was like.”
Ju has been accepted to begin a Ph.D. program in industrial-organizational psychology this fall at Old Dominion University.
“When I first got to Virginia Tech I didn’t really identify as a ‘first-generation student,’ and because of that I wasn’t able to seek out resources that could have helped me,” she said. “I wanted to provide input on GenerationOne to help new students recognize their own first-generation identity and help them realize they’re not alone here.”
Permission to Dream Big
Ellie Mangan will be among those first-year students living in GenerationOne.
“I knew I wanted to be a part of a community,” she said, reflecting on making the decision to sign up for the program. “I fit the criteria, and I figured, what could go wrong?
“I’m looking forward to meeting some new people and learning more about being first-gen,” she continued. “I didn’t really know what ‘first-generation’ meant until I was applying for college. Turns out it's kind of a big deal.”
“I didn’t really know what ‘first-generation’ meant until I was applying for college. Turns out it's kind of a big deal.”
As the university’s new assistant dean of students for first-generation student support and program director for the GenerationOne living-learning community, Cherry-Clarke also wants to make sure first-generation Hokies know that being first-gen is a big deal. “Being first-generation is your superpower,” she said. “It’s an identity that you’re going to bring with you to college and into the workforce. You will regularly bring perspectives that no could have ever imagined because of your own lived experiences. … We need to make sure all students, and especially first-generation students, feel like they have permission to dream big as they work to figure out what problems they want to solve in the world.”
For Mangan, that dream is informed by the relationship she has with her parents. She’s planning to major in business information technology with a focus on cybersecurity inspired by her father, who works in information technology for the federal government.
“I put in my college admission essay that going to college feels like a thank you to my parents,” she said. “They helped me push through the challenges of the past year and apply for college. Now I’m getting this opportunity that lots of people don’t get. I feel really grateful for them.”
Read Part 1
Article ItemFirst in the family , article
On their paths to graduation, many first-generation students must contend with a variety of structural and social barriers. In this first part of a two-part series, we look at a slate of Virginia Tech programs that supports them as they strive for success.