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ASU helping first-gen students rely on the resilience that got them to college

Virtual peer coaching provides connection, support for students who are first to go to college

man typing on laptop with book next to him
April 02, 2020

Students who are the first in their families to attend college can come with both challenges and coping skills — both of which are coming into play during the current pandemic crisis.

Arizona State University has been able to pivot its support for first-generation students to connect them to services and provide virtual peer coaching during the transition to online. As soon as spring break was over, the First-Year Success Center emailed its students tips and resources, according to Kevin Correa, director of the center.

“That message was particularly relevant to our first-generation students because of that core message we convey to them that, ‘You’re not alone,’” he said. 

The First-Year Success Center’s Game Changers program is devoted to first-generation students, with one-on-one peer coaching and other support, like getting help with technology issues and scheduling online tutoring sessions.

“We know that peer coaching in general is an effective tool to support student success, and that’s even more important now,” Correa said.

“These students know that even their coaches are going through the same things they are in terms of this challenging new environment.”

The peer coaches are holding Zoom sessions with students to work through problems, sustain connections and just blow off steam.

ASU has about 25,000 first-generation undergraduate students. Of the total undergraduate and graduate population, about 35% are first generation college-goers — more than three times the proportion in 2002.

Nationwide, first-generation college students are more likely to come from families with lower incomes and to work more hours per week than students who are not first generation. They’re also twice as likely to have dependents, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

The center held a webinar for student-success professionals this week on how to provide support during the COVID-19 crisis. Among the points about first-generation students were:

• With the switch to online learning, many don’t own or must share laptops and have no or limited access to the internet.

• Many depend on their institutions for housing, food and health care and are now insecure in those requirements.

• With schools and daycares closed, many must juggle their class and study time with trying to care for children or siblings.

• Many families depend on first-generation students’ income from jobs, and that pressure may be heightened with so many people out of work.

“One of the biggest things is having someone there to talk to and bounce around this concept of ‘It’s OK you feel this way and we’re all in this together.’”

– Muneeza Rashid, a biochemistry major at the Polytechnic campus.

The ASU coaches try to address all of the students’ needs — physical and emotional.

“We’ve done outreach with students we know have high financial need. Do they have enough to eat? Have they lost their job? We can connect them to student employment,” Correa said.

“Many rely on the food pantry, so we’re making sure they have alternative sources of food.”

The team also is doing targeted outreach to some groups of students, including Native American students who live on reservations and may have technology issues, and students with lower grade-point averages who are being connected to online tutoring.

Making the switch to online learning has presented challenges.

“If you’ve never taken an online class before, how do you adjust to that?” Correa said. “I’ve heard from some students that when roommates are on Zoom at the same time, it can slow down the Wi-Fi.

“They have to have a lot more self-motivation in terms of managing time and taking notes.”

Like everyone else, first-generation students are navigating uncertainty, which can be heightened when there’s financial insecurity.

“By now students should be registered for next semester,” he said. “I know there are some students have questions about signing a lease. They’re unsure if classes will be in person come fall.”

So how do the peer coaches help anxious, stressed-out students? By setting goals, coming up with a daily schedule and working through each problem as it comes up.

“One of the biggest things is having someone there to talk to and bounce around this concept of ‘It’s OK you feel this way and we’re all in this together,’” said Muneeza Rashid, a biochemistry major at the Polytechnic campus.

She said that during the first week of online university, students felt overwhelmed, but by the third week, many have settled in.

“Mostly it was a general sense of unease and almost surrealism, but now the common theme I’ve seen is that students are flexible and that makes me proud,” she said.

Rashid works with students to set up a game plan.

“I ask, ‘What does your schedule look like?’ ‘Are you sleeping all day?’ They need to balance things with self-care and also with pushing themselves to do their best,” she said.

She has also helped students communicate with their professors.

“A lot of students are telling me that online classes don’t meet their needs as far as understanding the material, so I’m working with them on how they reach out in a respectful and effective way,” she said. “Sometimes even if they don’t come up with a perfect plan, they feel better just opening that line of communication.”

Peer coach Ismail Alavarado, a psychology major at the West campus, has found that the new normal is strengthening the bonds with the students she coaches.

“When the students come and meet us in the FYS center, they talk to us about what they’re going through with family or boyfriends or girlfriends, and now those people are right there with them,” she said.

She worked with one student who is balancing work and school and was motivated by her siblings to do well.

“So I was introduced to her siblings at our first appointment after the transition,” she said. “We’re meeting them in their homes, which feels warm and welcoming.”

The coaches have seen their students make the best of the situation.

"You’re a first-generation student because you have a deep drive to pursue a higher education degree, and that’s what we want to maintain, whatever the obstacles.”

— Kevin Correa, director of the First-Year Success Center

“One kind of student says, ‘This is why I didn’t do online in the first place,’ but on the other side of the coin are those who say, ‘I wanted to do in person, but this makes it easier because I just have to go from my bed to my desk so I’m not late anymore and I’m actually in class,’” Alvarado said.

Students who are suddenly back at home also must set boundaries.

“I am still in the dorm room even though my family is 30 minutes away because we live where there are eight people in a two-bedroom apartment and I wouldn’t have space to do my classes or conduct appointments,” said Alvarado, who is herself a first-generation student.

“Students have to navigate difficult conversations with parents or siblings they share rooms with.”

The peer coaches are natural “helpers,” so Correa and the supervisors have worked to keep them from being overwhelmed themselves with frequent check-ins and virtual game nights.

“We regularly have conversations with them about how to, as much as possible, leave your work at work to have that compartmentalization, which is so key,” he said.

The First-Year Success team emphasizes the resilience of first-generation students who have already had to overcome challenges to get to ASU.

“The first thing we have them remember is their ‘why,’ and their ‘why’ is so compelling,” Correa said.

“You’re not a first-generation student by accident. You’re a first-generation student because you have a deep drive to pursue a higher education degree, and that’s what we want to maintain, whatever the obstacles.”

Top image by iStock/Getty Images

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