ASU success programs help first-generation students navigate between worlds

First-Gen Zone Conference highlights support systems for different populations

View of ASU Charter sign in front of Language and Literature building

First-generation college-goers can feel caught between two worlds as they navigate their new lives, but Arizona State University supports this population of students in many different ways.

ASU has about 25,000 undergraduates who are the first in their families to attend college, according to Kevin Correa, director of the Student Success Center at ASU. That number rises to about 30,000 when first-generation graduate students are added.

First-generation student enrollment has quadrupled since 2002, he said as he kicked off the First-Gen Zone 2022 Conference, which was presented online on Thursday.

“It’s very important that we take a strengths-based perspective, which means not focusing on what we think our first-generation students might be lacking, but honing in on the strengths they bring,” Correa said.

The daylong event covered several ways that higher-education staff can support first-generation students.

Building a community

Maria Anguiano
Maria Anguiano

Maria Anguiano said that her bio, tracing her career to her current position as executive vice president for the Learning Enterprise at ASU, did not describe “the very long and windy journey I went through” as a first-generation student.

Anguiano grew up the oldest of three kids with a single mother near San Diego.

It was a shock when she started attending Claremont McKenna College, a small, private liberal arts school.

“The students were much wealthier, and they played sports I had never heard of, like lacrosse. There was different music and movies,” she said.

She felt isolated and got through the four years with a small friend group of other Latina students.

Moving to college tore Anguiano away from her family and her neighborhood.

“My brother and sister were like my kids because I spent so much time caring for them,” she said. “Why do we have to leave our families to go to a great institution?”

She later went to Stanford University for business school.

“It was another place that had very few people of my background,” she said. “My mission of access for everyone is very much grounded in these experiences.

“Having gone to these schools that were fantastic but didn’t make people like me feel that I belong, it was, ‘This can’t be the way higher ed works. It has to be more inclusive, and it has to be more accessible.’ 

“Part of my work here at ASU is to think about how we can create a strong community — a place where every student feels they belong and are included from the first day they arrive.”

One major Learning Enterprise initiative is ASU Local, which brings the university experience to students in their communities. Students collaborate, work on projects, do internships, meet with success coaches and get career advice, and complete their academic coursework flexibly online.

“Just because they’re living at home doesn’t mean they can’t have a robust community,” Anguiano said.

ASU Local sites include the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles and the ASU Barbara Barrett and Sandra Day O’Connor Washington Center in Washington, D.C., plus ASU Local in Yuma.

“This was created with the success of first-generation students in mind,” Anguiano said.

Overcoming ‘status anxiety’

There are three fundamental issues that impact the success of first-generation students: preparation, support and developing a sense of belonging to the college, according to Robert Longwell-Grice, staff emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of “At the Intersection: Understanding and Supporting First-Generation Students.”

Research has found that first-generation students are at higher risk of dropping out because of several factors: They are less likely to attend college immediately after graduating from high school and more likely to be less academically prepared, have less help from family members in applying and be less knowledgeable about financial aid. They’re more likely to live at home and attend part-time.

First-generation students can struggle with “status anxiety.”

“It’s the feeling caused by being caught between two worlds, with real conflict between college and home as a result of changes,” Longwell-Grice said at the conference.

These students can feel a sense of “leaving behind” family and friends by entering college. When the family dynamic is upended, parents can express frustration by making students feel guilty.

“We have to convince families that going to college is worth it in the long run,” he said. “It might be a momentary loss of income or support, but in the long run it will be better for the family and the student as well.”

Trauma-informed care

ASU has several programs that support specific groups of students who are likely to be first-generation. Bridging Success works with students who have a background in foster care, and the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars program is for students who have dependents, have a disability or are independent of their families.

The program directors discussed how they approach their work with the mindset that their students might have dealt with several “Adverse Childhood Experiences.” ACEs are experiences that, when accumulated, can increase poor outcomes in adults, such as substance abuse and health problems. There are 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences, including physical abuse, emotional neglect, witnessing domestic violence and having a family member be incarcerated.

Research shows that about a third of Americans have experienced no ACES, but about one in six has experienced four or more, the point at which negative outcomes are much more likely, said Justine Cheung, program director of Bridging Success.

“If one in six ASU students has four or more, that’s 16,000 students who have had significant trauma in their life,” she said.

Students in the Bridging Success program show resilience, although sometimes the coping skills they’ve developed can become maladaptive in the college environment, Cheung said.

“They may have been super assertive and voice the things they need to get their needs met. But that can become aggressive over time,” she said. “We have to help them cultivate new adaptive skills.”

Cheung and Jo Ann Martinez, program director of the scholarship program, said that students who have experienced trauma can have trouble building trust and may reject help with mental health. They can struggle with financial literacy. They might become overwhelmed by deadlines, withdraw from communication, isolate themselves or become involved in unhelpful relationships.

How does that relate to people who work in higher education? It means changing the conversation, Cheung said.

“It shifts the conversation from ‘What’s wrong with you’ and this idea of whoever is walking into your office has a problem and we need to fix it to, ‘What happened to you?’"

Being aware of trauma affects every part of the job.

“The classic example is if there is a student in my space, I don’t automatically shut the door. Closing that door can be a trigger,” she said.

Cheung and Martinez said it’s important to empower these students with a sense of control and the knowledge that the institution will collaborate with them.

“We need to be consistent. We need to be predictable. We need to be non-shaming if they disclose something,” Cheung said.

Grad students are still first-gen

First-generation students who earn an undergraduate degree can still struggle with a new and mystifying world when they start graduate school.

Mary Bankhead, a project coordinator in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, discussed this in her talk, “But I’m Still First-Gen: Actual Ways to Support First-Generation Graduate Students in Their Own Words.”

She’s pursuing a PhD at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona and created a survey of first-generation graduate students, asking what’s important to them and what they need.

Money was a big issue.

Students who attend part-time due to work or parenting complained that they missed out on opportunities such as research, while another said that it was too expensive to travel to pre-admission events on campus. Another student replied that they were expected to pay upfront for a flight, hotel and fee to present at a conference, and the post-event reimbursement left the student struggling for weeks.

“If we expect students to publish and present and make our program look great, pay for it,” Bankhead said. “Fully fund people. Fully fund them on everything. The money is there. If we want students to be successful, remove those barriers, especially financial.”

Programs that help

College Connect is a program for students in Tempe Union High School District that provides free one-on-one advising, workshops and scholarship opportunities. Some of the advisers are students in ASU University Service Learning courses.

“Often I find that when working in a Title I school, the parents may not have completed middle school, and I see students who experience great pressure to enter the workforce at age 16 or 17 and drop out of school,” said Roger Lurie, a mentor and coach with College Connect.

Many families have misconceptions about the cost of college and a fear of sharing information on the FAFSA.

“The key is building trust and patience and be willing to meet over and over on a one-on-one basis — something the high school counselors often don’t have time to do,” he said.

The ASU Library offers a “first-generation library guide” that details topics such as “library lingo,” a step-by-step tutorial on how to research a paper, and resources for first-generation students.

“We often see students frustrated with not knowing how to start,” said Allinston Saulsberry, undergraduate instruction and outreach librarian.

“Most resources at a university weren’t available in high school, and instead of doing a one-pager, they’re doing five to 10 pages. It’s hard to know where to start.”

The idea for the Watts College Financial Resources Peer Mentoring Program began when Jennifer Bevins met with a student who needed help paying for college. The student, who identified as LGBTQ, was not in contact with any family.

“OK, so no FAFSA, no co-signing private loans. This is complicated,” said Bevins, assistant director for student retention and engagement in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

The peer-mentorship program was launched in collaboration with first-generation students in Watts.

“Financial Aid has a lot of resources and we use that, but we provide an opportunity for them to test it out,” Bevins said.

“A lot of times they only interact with financial aid resources in a moment of stress – tuition deadline day or they have a hold. With this, they practice with somebody they have a relationship with and there are no dumb questions.”

‘I’m supposed to be here’

Several first-generation ASU students participated in a panel discussion about the challenges they’ve faced.

Johnny Jenkins, a sophomore in Barrett, The Honors College who is majoring in business administration at the Polytechnic campus: “Getting involved, especially during COVID and Zoom and being at home and wanting to branch out and meet new people, was a challenge. I really put myself out there and didn’t care about other people’s opinions, in clubs and in student work opportunities. One obstacle I had to overcome, especially in Barrett, was doubt. There’s not a lot of people who look like me. I’m telling myself I’m supposed to be here despite other people who are smarter than me, and I’m telling myself the truth that I did get accepted and I did have the GPA and all the awards. Giving myself that affirmation and overcoming the doubt and fear — I’ve had to grow confidence.”

Katelyn Kubly, a senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies with a focus in criminal justice: “A challenge I faced was having to work a lot. In my senior year (of high school), my mom was the primary provider and had to leave her job right as I was coming to school. I don’t know how I’m supposed to pay for stuff. I was working two jobs and that was a lot, and I was also in clubs. You’re juggling so many different things. So many times, I wanted to pack up and go home. It was tiring, and it was a lot. My family was helpful but didn’t always get what I was dealing with, but I was able to make some connections at the university with professors.”

Jason Bautista Pejay, a third-year student majoring in anthropology with a focus on archeology, and also a Flinn Scholar: “My parents immigrated from Mexico. I’m here doing the things my parents did not have any opportunity to do. Especially in the Flinn community; they’re all super geniuses. I’m just here trying to figure out what I want to do. A big reason why I was hesitant to go into the humanities is that, ‘I’m Mexican – I need to do something physical and learn how to make money.’  I never saw a Mexican archeologist who likes really nerdy stuff.  Understanding that you can carve that path out for yourself is one of the biggest things thing I had to overcome in college. Some people have a network of support to go into a major that might not make a lot of money.  My parents will be looking to me for support.”

Top image of the ASU Charter sign in front of Durham Hall in Tempe by Deanna Dent/ASU News

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