Help for First in Their Family to Go to College

April 30th, 2014

BU’s First Gen Connect: support, guidance, a “home base”

Looking back on her first year of college, Jessica McCulley realizes she made some mistakes. But her gaffes weren’t the typical freshman year sleep-through-the-alarm, party-too-hard variety.

“I’m the first one to go to college in my family, and so when I was an undergrad, I kind of had to figure stuff out on my own,” she says. “I didn’t register for the right classes, I didn’t take advantage of the right opportunities. What you don’t realize as a 17-year-old is there’s a culture of academia that you have to navigate to be successful.”

Now, as the graduate student intern for First Gen Connect, McCulley (SSW’14) is sharing her hard-earned experience with others who are the first or among the first in their family to attend college. Run by the University Service Center, the program is aimed at helping them make a smooth and successful transition to college life by offering summer welcome receptions, social events, and special workshops. Its yearlong programming helps first gen students make sense of financial aid forms and gives study tips and advice about landing that first internship.

“One of the hardest transitions for students can be coming from high school, where they’re a big fish in a small pond,” says USC senior associate director Natalie Verge, who coleads the First Gen Connect program. “What maybe worked in high school might not work in college. Our programs are meant to celebrate the achievements of first gen students, and provide them with a home base as soon as they are admitted to BU.”

Studies show how critical such extra support can be. Nationally, 89 percent of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. More than 25 percent leave after freshman year—four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students. That’s because while first-generation students struggle with many of the same issues as their classmates—homesickness, academic pressure, and time management—they often don’t have a parent or other family member who can provide firsthand advice about those problems.

“How do you talk to your roommate about FAFSA [a financial aid form], if their family is either wealthy enough not to need it or your roommate’s parents took care of filling out all the forms?” McCulley asks. “It’s intimidating, and many students don’t want to think of themselves as first gen college students. But they were bright enough to get into BU; there’s no need to be intimidated.”

Modeled after similar programs at other universities, the USC’s First Gen Connect program began in 2008, with maybe “two handfuls” of students, Verge says. The program has since grown through word of mouth and stronger outreach. For the 2013–2014 academic year, approximately 15 percent of incoming students indicated on their admissions application that neither of their parents had earned a bachelor’s degree, says USC director Kristine Gilchrist-Minasidis. Those are the students the USC wants to reach. While the group does not have official membership, invitations to workshops and events go out to about 660 students, she adds.

Throughout the summer, First Gen Connect staff members hold receptions for incoming freshmen and email them information about registration and Move-in. They then host a welcome reception during Move-in weekend and a series of social events and workshops throughout the school year that offer advice on test prep, managing test anxiety, and what you need to know before enrolling in a study abroad program.

Christina Coviello, senior assistant director of Financial Assistance, held a recent workshop on managing money. A mix of 15 underclassmen and transfer students—all first gens—crowded into the USC’s office and huddled around a conference table laden with cookies and fruit. Coviello opened with some questions.

How many of you have a part-time job? A credit card? Most students raised their hands to these two, a surprisingly different response than when she asked how many planned to go on a spring break trip—none. Coviello talked about important financial aid deadlines, showed an example of a personal monthly budget, and explained how they could figure out their FICO credit score. Then it was the students’ turn to ask some questions.

  • If my GPA goes up during the school year, any chance my financial aid will also increase?
  • With tuition increases occurring every year, is there a chance that my financial aid award will increase incrementally?
  • If my sister is going to college next year, how will that affect my financial aid?

After the event was over, students lined up for one-on-one time with Coviello.

“I had to fill out the FAFSA on my own and then figure out what kind of financial aid I got,” explained Johnson Lam (CAS’17) after the event, echoing others’ stories.

Janelle Villagomez (CGS’15) said that before the event she was a bit confused about how to fill out the financial aid forms, but helpfully, the workshop coincided with her renewing her financial aid award for next year.

“Along with the events, the USC staff have been really kind and told me to come to them if I ever have any questions or need any kind of help,” she said. “Just knowing that I have another source to help guide me is really reassuring.”

Interested in joining First Gen Connect? Visit the University Service Center’s website or call 617-358-1818 for more information.

First Generation students from the Class of 2018 can find out about summer receptions here.

- Author, Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.