Friday, February 20, 2015

Fitting In On Campus: Challenges for First-Generation Students

Chris Reynolds will never forget his first day at the University of Michigan. He and his dad got up super early and drove nine and a half hours from Sellersville, a blue-collar factory town in Pennsylvania, to Ann Arbor.

"My father literally just dropped me off and then left," Reynolds says. His dad couldn't afford a hotel, so they took about an hour to unpack the car, said their goodbyes, and his dad drove off. Chris Reynolds was officially on his own.

He thought he was pretty prepared. He had a dorm room, a meal plan and a couple hundred bucks to last until he found a job. What he wasn't prepared for was how lonely and out of place he felt on campus.

People would ask questions: "What do my parents do?" or "Where did they go to college?" His parents didn't go to college. His mom was a housekeeper, and his dad was unemployed. Reynolds responses were met with "oh" and "OK."

"It was hard for other students to understand that for us to go to college we were taking a big risk," says Anna Garcia, Reynolds' friend and a senior at the school.

Like Reynolds, she's the first in her family to go to college. Garcia grew up in Lincoln Park, a blue-collar city near Detroit, about 40 miles from the campus.

"People in my hometown thought that I was really stuck up all of a sudden because I decided to go to Michigan, and they know that Michigan is a very prestigious college," she says.

Garcia and Reynolds met at a first-generation student support group on campus, which was nothing short of a lifeline in many ways. They found friends and people they could relate to. But Garcia says she could have used more help.

"I know of many students who have left after their freshmen year because they just felt they couldn't find their place on campus," she says.

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