President Speaks: I was a first-gen student. Here’s what’s changed, and what work is left to do.


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Cathy Sandeen is the president of California State College, East Bay.

It is a graduation speech customary that by no means fails to generate rousing applause: “In case you are the primary in your loved ones to earn a university diploma, please stand.”

I stated these phrases in Might at 16 separate in-person graduation ceremonies right here at California State College, East Bay, the place 64% of our college students are first-generation college students.

As a college president who can also be a first-generation school graduate — and alumna of two California State College System campuses — in fact I’m grateful for the alternatives my first diploma has afforded me. On the similar time, graduation season offers me the chance to extra deeply replicate on how the first-generation expertise at the moment might have modified from my very own undergraduate days, and the way school leaders should reply to these adjustments. 

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Cathy Sandeen

Courtesy of CSU East Bay


Id. Again within the ’70s, there was no title for us. The truth is, I didn’t hear the time period “first-generation school scholar” till round 2010. Imposter syndrome and different challenges are actual for all first-generation college students, in addition to ladies and other people of shade. However at the moment, first-generation id is acknowledged extra brazenly. That’s a constructive change. The lingering emotions of disgrace and secrecy of the previous might have dissipated considerably for at the moment’s first-generation college students.

Higher understanding of the particular wants of first-generation college students has led to many finest practices to create a way of group and belonging amongst these learners. Proactive educational advising and peer teaching are two examples. Our college additionally has printed a sequence of handbooks for first-generation college students, titled “You might be Not Alone,” with first-person accounts from different first-generation college students, workers and school. 

Affordability. Public regional universities had been actually inexpensive throughout my time. There was a center class, and households might assist help their college students. College students might realistically work full-time over the summer season to earn sufficient to pay for the following educational 12 months. That isn’t the case at the moment. Inflation-adjusted tuition prices for four-year public schools have roughly tripled for the reason that Eighties. 

Right now’s first-generation college students come from numerous BIPOC backgrounds. They’re additionally extra more likely to be from lower-income families than non-first-generation college students. Regardless of larger monetary support choices now in comparison with the ‘70s, many present first-generation college students stay considerably challenged by the necessity to work a number of jobs and help households whereas combating housing and meals insecurity — all components that may have an effect on persistence and diploma attainment. 

Fundamental wants help, meals pantries, machine loans and free open academic sources can all assist the first-generation inhabitants.

Publish-graduation. Throughout my time as an undergraduate, profession providers consisted of a bodily job posting bulletin board and maybe a resume writing workshop. It’s no shock such providers have expanded together with the necessity for schools and universities to report post-graduation incomes metrics. A constructive byproduct of this development is recognizing that, upon commencement, first-generation college students will develop into first-generation professionals or first-generation graduate college students. Many universities are scaling their profession exploration and help applications figuring out that first-generation grads lack broader skilled relationships, or social capital, of their non-first-generation friends. Profession help is required to propel success post-graduation. 

Imposter syndrome. Some issues haven’t modified. First-gen college students function out of their consolation zones daily. A litany of questions run by their head: “Do I belong right here? Can I actually achieve success? Don’t ask a query, you may stand out.” First-generation college students are masters of code switching as they navigate between college and household. As an example, they could consider they need to appear sensible in school, however not too sensible at house. Household achievement guilt could also be exacerbated for college kids from cultures the place household ties are emphasised. These deep emotional experiences persist over time — I’m dwelling proof — and won’t be fully erased by offering enhanced first-generation scholar providers. Empathy and understanding for the first-generation expertise will stay a significant a part of scholar success. 

Financial mobility. This was and is indeniable: incomes a bachelor’s diploma is the important thing to financial mobility and stability for people, households and communities. Being the primary to attain this step stays an amazing accomplishment even more so today than throughout my day — an accomplishment that could be a societal good. 

Our knowledge-based financial system calls for an informed workforce. Extra importantly, occasions of the previous two years have highlighted the necessity for equitable alternative for significant financial and social participation past essentially the most privileged of our society. Being critical and intentional about supporting first-gen college students can contribute to each targets — financial mobility and social justice.

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