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Help for First in Their Family to Go to College

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.

Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

4 Comments on Help for First in Their Family to Go to College

  • Christina on 04.30.2014 at 9:47 am

    I think this is a great program and one I wish I had access to when I was an undergraduate since I am a first generation college graduate. I had to navigate the world of financial aid on my own and had to learn how to be a college student among peers who were far more prepared than I was. During my senior year I recall thinking I wish I had more time as an undergrad because I just figured out how to go to school. I did go on to get a second bachelors and 2 master degrees and I am now the most educated member of my family across multiple generations. It has been a long and difficult journey and a lot of hard but valuable lessons were learned.

  • R.J. Page on 04.30.2014 at 9:50 am

    Happy to hear about the great things the USC are doing through First Gen Connect. The statistics and “not as visible issues” that this article mentions are very true, and I am glad to see that First Gen Connect is filling this gap and growing at the same time.

    Keep it up!!

  • kitty on 04.30.2014 at 11:38 am

    What a success story, both for these bright, courageous students embarking on a voyage not one member of her or his family has navigated and for the dedicated and knowledgeable University Service Center staff! The USC identified the need to help these students, in addition to all the services it already provided, stepped up, and created a successful program.

    That first generation college students at BU can refer to the staff as kind and convincing in their offer of help, at any time, is wonderful. I would venture to say this is one of the ablest, most knowledgeable, and least recognized staff at Boston University.

  • Alumni on 04.30.2014 at 12:58 pm

    Sounds like a great initiative. Identifying and helping groups of at-risk students is a win-win.

    If I was in the administration at BU, I would suggest that they use data analysis to identify groups of students who have difficulty academically. Athletes and “fist in their family” college students are obvious choices, but there are probably a lot of less thought of groups that could really benefit from special programs. You could use GPA or a binary graduation rate indicator as the independent variable and look for highly correlated attributes.

    I was homeschooled before I went to BU. The only formal education I had growing up was a few college classes at a local university. I did well in those classes and I had a strong SAT score, but I had no experience in balancing full-time classes and a social life and had gaping deficiencies in my education. I was on academic probation after my freshman year and could have easily failed out. I was able to turn things around, but I was very much an at risk student. It would have made a HUGE difference if BU had offered me the kind of services that they’re going to offer “fist in their family” college students.

    There’s a really great opportunity to identify special need students and improve the lives of a lot of undergrads as well as improve graduation rates (an important stat for the BU)!

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