What does November 8th mean to you?
For me, it means doing a little extra to connect with my first-generation identity, celebrate my accomplishments, and bring awareness to the challenges that first-gen students like me face.
That’s because November 8th is First-Generation College Celebration Day. If you haven’t heard of it before, no worries! NASPA launched this annual day of celebration in 2017, but don’t let its freshness dull your sense of its importance.
Navigating college as a first-gen student is a big deal. And having spoken with plenty of first-gen advocates from my alma mater, it seems that connecting students to the community is the solution that’s proposed most often to the challenges we face. But, creating communication connections is much more easily said than done.
Hosting a variety of events and initiatives on November 8th is an awesome way to set the tone for first-gen students. It tells them that they are worthy of celebration, that they are not alone, and that there are sources of support available for them.
Here are my suggestions!
1. Showcase resources
Workshops and support groups are awesome ways to support first-gen students.
It’s also great to put up a display of a variety of resources so that students can access as they choose. You can think of this as a display showing off your awesome celebration — reminding students that these resources are available well-beyond the daylong celebration. You can include photos of different parts of the celebration, as well as times and locations for relevant office hours.
2. Uplift alumni
Connect with your alumni association staff and encourage them to give alumni the opportunity to identify as first-gen.
You can utilize first-gen alumni’s contact information to start a casual mentoring program or even to collect bios about their experiences during college and after. Consider hosting a panel for local alumni to respond to first-gen students’ concerns in real time.
3. Screen Michelle Obama’s videos
Did you know that Michelle Obama was first-gen and is a vocal first-gen advocate? Give students space to hear her encouraging words while surrounded by other students just like them.
She recently hosted the 2019 Beating the Odds Summit, wherein she encouraged first-gen students and shared practical tips for college success with them.
Her advice included not doing it alone, taking time to explore, and accessing resources as you need them.
4. Support families
It’s essential to not forget about students’ families. Remember: Having the first person in their family go off to college is a big deal. Families may feel out of place for thinking they don’t know the “proper” lingo or don’t have an “accurate” understanding of college life.
Bridge the gap by hosting a webinar or YouTube series. Or you could send out a newsletter to help first-gen families learn with their students and celebrate their successes. You might create an FAQ sheet or “an ABC of Going to College” tip list, perhaps focusing on a different subjects or themes each week, month, or semester. Some examples are common myths, ways to support your students, decoding jargon, and important milestones or deadlines to keep in touch with students about.
Here are some additional suggestions of ways to connect with students’ families, all year long.
5. Invite students to have lunch with staff and faculty
As I’ve been told by staff and faculty, after students make it through college, they still hold on to their first-gen identities – far into their graduate education and professional careers. Even as established professionals, they often continue to feel like imposters when they compare themselves to their colleagues.
So, consider ways for the stories of first-gen faculty and staff to connect with students. One way is by announcing that some faculty and staff will be at lunch wearing “I’m First” pins. They could also display stickers or magnets in their offices well after November 8th has passed.
Because a lot of students feel intimidated by their professors, this is one way to show that faculty are relatable people. Rather than a standard panel discussion in which there are barriers between the panelists and the audience, use this strategy to bring students, faculty, and staff together to share their experiences more candidly.
6. Launch a blog
Sharing perspectives can happen both in-person and digitally. Writing for a blog (like this one) has been really helpful for me. It’s helped me gain confidence and get to know myself better. It’s a great way to process experiences and share my story with others in a way that’s more permanent than a brief conversation.
You could launch the blog with one post, and from there, ask first-gen community members to pitch topics they’re interested in writing about. The blog can serve as a year-round resource for prospective and current students, as well as faculty and staff. It can help people find community or learn more about what it’s like to be first-gen.
7. Invite high school students to visit campus
It’s nice to get support, but it’s also nice to give it.
Perhaps your admissions staff could invite local middle or high school students to tour campus and learn more about college life. This can be an enriching experience for the younger students and the college students, too.
College students can share their experiences with applications, financial aid, course workloads, being away from home, and of course, being the first in their families to attend college.
8. Hold a “Why I’m First” photoshoot
Asking students what being first means to them invites them to share how they really feel.
Recognize that they may have a lot of conflicting emotions. As a student, I oscillated between feeling super accomplished and out of place. I also spent a lot of time in between those two extremes.
November 8th can be a great day for students to celebrate. It gives them a space to feel pride rather than shame.
But because not every first-gen student will feel ready to celebrate, be sure to make participation optional. Don’t make assumptions about how people feel, and don’t get too in people’s faces about participating.
You could do the photoshoot so that students write their answer to the question (of why they’re first and/or what it means to them) on a little whiteboard, and take a picture with the board. This could also serve as an awesome second post for your first-gen blog.
9. Provide support groups
Consider how you can provide emotional and logistical support to students. You might focus on academic success, rewriting patterns of self-talk, mending relationships with family, and other strategies for success.
Consider inviting a colleague from your wellness center to facilitate these conversations. Similar to a support group but without the clinical needs, you could have a student leader invite other first-gen students to share their experiences.
Consider inviting key staff to listen, note concerns, and use the session as an opportunity to get up-to-date on how students are feeling. Gauge your staff’s connection to first-gen students; it may be better that this be entirely student-led with the student leader relaying key points to key staff after the fact.
10. Highlight intersectionality
The first-gen identity frequently intersects with other historically marginalized identities through race, gender, class, immigrant status, and more. Focus on supporting your students through addressing food insecurity, police presence, and other challenges.
You can show support for low-income students by making sure that information about your campus food pantry is well-publicized and that you provide affordable, healthy eating tips.
You can hold specific panels, workshops, and discussions for people with certain identities to talk about ways they’re being perceived in the classroom and on campus. You can show support for students are also the first in their families to be in this country.
All of these factors make the college experience complicated, and students will surely appreciate your support.
Whatever you do to celebrate, I hope your institution takes the day to recognize first-gen students.
What are some ways you’ve celebrated November 8th? What do you have planned for this year? We’d love to know your plans at @HelloPresence!