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First-generation students get a head start

By Gina Ohnstad

First-generation, working-class orientation

Nationwide, only 40 percent of first-generation college students will earn a bachelor's degree in six years. And statistics are not the only thing working against them in their pursuit of (what should be) a four-year path: many feel like they face a greater number of challenges than their classmates whose parents did attend college. Although Whitman College's graduation rate for first-generation students is higher than the national average - 76 percent graduate within just four years-first-generation Whitman students often face challenges similar to those of their peers around the country.

Studies have found that those whose parents never attended college, for example, receive far less emotional, informational and financial support from their parents than those whose parents did. First-generation students also report higher levels of stress and anxiety and often feel "out of place," as though classmates from non-working-class backgrounds are more confident and able to navigate the maze of freshman year as though they had done it hundreds of times before. In addition, certain activities and majors - those with added material or participation fees not covered by tuition - can seem prohibitively expensive to students who come from households where frugality matters.

In light of these challenges, making the transition to college easier for first-generation and working-class students has become a priority at Whitman.

This past July, the college flew 32 incoming first-generation/working-class students to campus for an orientation program, an inaugural effort made possible by donors. The goal: to get students familiar with the campus, faculty and staff members and the resources available to them, so that they can approach college with confidence.

The incoming students visited offices around campus offering student resources: academic, financial, health and student activity-related. They also had the chance to preview what their new academic world will be like, completing reading assignments and taking part in small classroom discussions led by faculty members. They dove into writing assignments that were critiqued by their future professors, and test-drove an art class where they learned how to make cyanotypes through the monochrome photographic printing process that has been around since the late 1800s.

Students also got familiar with experiences Whitman offers outside the classroom. During their visit, they stayed in the residence halls, tried out the climbing wall, tennis courts, fitness center and pool; and they got to know the town that they will call home for the next few years with outings to local attractions, parks and eateries.

In part, this new program is built upon ideas from former and current first-generation Whitman students. Having emigrated from Chile, Alejandro Fuentes Mena '13 said that his family was not familiar with the American school system, especially at the college level, and couldn't help him understand or navigate it. Those challenges were reflected in his grades.

"It has to do with the fact that I had a lack of knowledge. That's not necessarily Whitman's fault or my parents' fault or my fault, it's just the way that I feel society works based on the social class that you grew up in," he said.

For incoming students like first year Daphne Gallagos '19, from Kennewick, Washington, this year's program has helped her feel grounded and eased any nerves she had about the adventure that lies ahead.

"As a first generation student, I'm going somewhere where my family has never been, and that's incredibly frightening and exciting," she said. "However, knowing that there is a solid support system to aid me on this new journey is incredibly comforting. Meeting other students going through the same things as me adds another layer of depth to the support system."

Kazi Joshua, Whitman's associate dean for intercultural affairs and chief diversity officer, says the weeklong summer orientation program is a new, better-defined starting-point for supporting these students.

"Our commitment to these students doesn't end here," said Joshua. "We are committed to helping them succeed throughout their entire time here at Whitman."

Another new program pairs first-generation students with faculty and peer advisors. For the first time, staff members are also serving as facilitators and mentors this year, providing students with an additional point-of-contact and support.

Many staff members were eager to help. For them, the role is personal.

"I volunteered to be a staff mentor because I was a first-generation, working-class student way back when," said Barbara Hoffman, assistant director of off-campus studies. "I was the first woman in my family to go to college, and I also had very limited financial resources in college. Navigating the issues that come with being a first-generation student takes courage, risk-taking and help from others."

Before classes even started, Hoffman picked up her mentee at the airport, made sure the belongings she had mailed were all in her room before she arrived, took her on a store run to get some items she needed and helped her learn how to use the program that helps students find jobs on campus.

The new initiatives seem to be working. Incoming first-generation students who attended the orientation program say it gave them more than just the tools they need to succeed when they arrive on campus. It also gave them something much more valuable: a community.

Perhaps one student who participated in the program put it best: "Before coming to this program I was worried about leaving home to come to Whitman; instead, returning in the fall felt like coming home."

Published on Sep 14, 2015
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