Calling All First-Generation Students!

WC’s First Gen & Allies Club actively welcomes Poets

Catherine Tang


Generally speaking, a first-generation college student is defined as someone whose parents or legal guardians have not completed a four-year college degree, making them the “first generation” of their family to attend college. Being a first-generation college student brings with it a number of challenges that typically are not problems for students from families with previous college experience, and these challenges often arise long before the student has actually enrolled in college. This is especially important because the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 34 percent of all undergraduate students were considered first–generation in the 2011–2012 academic year.

First-generation students may not understand the workings of the college application process or how to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to receive financial aid. The latter is of utmost importance for many first-generation students who, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute (PNPI), usually come from low-income families. President of First Gen & Allies Club third-year Martha Avila-Zavala explains, “It’s a completely new area for all of us. We can’t go to our parents and [say], ‘Okay, when do I register? How do I do this? Who do I go to?’ because no one has experienced that before, so even starting then, challenges arise.” 

This is where the First Gen & Allies Club comes in. Between 2014 and 2015, the club was founded specifically to provide support and guidance to first-generation college students. According to the  club’s profile on OrgSync, its main mission is “to promote and create resources for members to easily navigate their college experience,” as well as to “generate a new, more embracing culture on campus towards First Generation Students.” 

By drawing first-generation students together, the club provides a space where students going through the college experience without many resources or prior knowledge can relate their shared struggles. 

“I joined [the club] my freshman year, so it was a good way to meet new people, [especially since] as a commuter, I didn’t know a lot of people,”  said  third-year and Club’s Vice President Priscilla Villa. 

Upperclass first-generation members of the club also have the opportunity to pass down the knowledge they have acquired and give advice to younger students. The Club’s Secretary, third-year Alondra Chavira, notes, “The older [students] were able to guide me and tell me, ‘You should do this; you should do that! Get involved in this and that!’ From experience, [they shared] what they thought would be best for me.” 

Once they matriculate to a college, first-generation students may struggle with a lack of college readiness, financial challenges, low self-esteem, difficulty assimilating to the college environment, and more. Despite this, first-generation students are 16 percent more likely to enroll in a two-year college than students whose parents had at least a bachelor’s degree, according to PNPI. 

First-generation students may also be unaware of where to find access to resources that can aid them, and even if they do, sometimes these resources are not specifically tailored to their needs. 

“On campus, what resources are available for us? How do we approach professors? How do we know what classes to take? I’m a pre-med student — how do I go about that?” said Avila-Zavala. “Prior to [the formation] of this club, there was really nothing specifically designed for us. Yeah, there’s the [Office of Equity and Inclusion] OEI, some professors, and [Center of Advising and Academic Success] CAAS, but [they are] not specifically tailored to first-generation college students. Our needs may be slightly different than [those of] other college students, who may have parents or family members who actually went through this and can provide that guidance at home.” 

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In addition, the First Gen & Allies Club holds different events and activities to connect members to resources. Recently, on Nov. 27, the club hosted a self-care event at the OEI in collaboration with the Student Counseling Center. “We held a discussion of self-care and what that looks like specifically for first-generation college students because [we] really want to be successful, [so we] have that feeling of, ‘Am I doing enough to be successful? What are other students doing that I’m not doing?’ [But when] you’re putting in that extra work, sometimes you forget about taking care of yourself,” said Avila-Zavala. 

Another activity the club organized this semester was Café Con Profe (Spanish for “Coffee With Professors”), where a panel of professors shared their own advice on how to navigate college as a first-generation student.

Poets may also wonder what being an “ally” for a first-generation student entails, seeing as the club’s name is inclusive of both first-generation students and allies. An ally is not necessarily someone who provides first-generation students with resources; they could just be a person who actively supports these students. “[An ally is] someone who acknowledges first-generation college students and the struggles they go through,” said Avila-Zavala. 

The First Gen & Allies Club also does not limit the definition of “first-generation student” as much as you might think. Although being a first-generation student technically means being the very first in your family to attend college, the club considers students whose parents received higher education in another country as first-generation too, since their parents may not speak English or understand how the college system works in the U.S. 

These students often go through similar struggles, like not knowing where to find resources or who to turn to for help. “[The club] broke down what being a first-generation student was because I didn’t know . . . who that applied to. So that helped a lot in understanding myself, understanding others, and allowing all of us to process the same identity together,” said  fourth-year and club’s Public Relations Director Cristián Alcántara. Joining the First Gen & Allies Club may help Poets realize that they qualify as first-generation students themselves. 

The club’s main goals for the future are to try to reach all of the first-generation college students on campus by spreading word about the club, as well as continuing to help students with navigating their first-generation identity. Alcántara emphasizes the importance of “providing open spaces to have conversations about what [First Gen] anxieties are, how we can support [first-generation students], and what they need from us or the institution as a whole.”

For those who are interested, the First Gen & Allies Club invites all students and to the events they will be holding next semester, which include a screening and discussion of a documentary on women with HIV, in addition to a second session of Café Con Profe.