STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

First generation students navigate college life

Jordan Medina
students at the First-Gens kickoff meeting

Nearly 30 percent, or 4.5 million, of college students arelow-income, first-generation students.

Whether or not these kids can afford college, they’re quickly realizing that it’s becoming an economic necessity. Even though they realize the importance of a college education, a growing number of them will never obtain a college degree.

Of all students who identify as first-generation college students, nearly 30 percent will drop out of college after their first year. Even worse, only 8 percent of ninth graders in low-income communities will graduate from college by their 25th birthday. It’s no wonder then that a group of students at the University of Michigan formed an organization that also acts as a “support system” for first-generation college students.

First-Generation College Students @ Michigan – First-Gens for short – was founded in 2007 by a group of undergraduate and graduate students who felt the University of Michigan had no student organization that adequately addressed the needs and concerns of this often overlooked community.

For sophomore Anna Garcia, an overwhelming sense of isolation almost drove her to switch schools her freshman year. “I hated it here,” she says, “I didn’t feel like I belonged.” It wasn’t until Garcia joined First-Gens that she feel like she found a group of students she could connect with. Garcia is now the groups vice president.

First-Gens hosts a series of meetings throughout the school year that range from ice cream socials with friends to fireside chats with university faculty and staff. While the informal meetings may be more desirable, the meetings with mid-career professionals might be most beneficial. Formal encouragement seems to be something many of these students lacked before showing up on campus.

Even though college was encouraged by all of the students’ parents, only one said they had been prepared for college early on in their childhood. “I definitely think my older brothers going to college made it easier on my parents. By the time I graduated high school, they knew what to expect,” says Kristi Begonia, a junior from New York. Knowing what to expect for the Begonias meant making sure Kristi attended a magnet high school and had the opportunity to visit Michigan before enrolling.

Another part of knowing what to expect for the Begonias meant encouraging Kristi to choose a major she was interested in, not necessarily one that would make her a lot of money post-graduation. That’s a lesson Carson Phillips, the president of First-Gens, wished his family knew. Throughout the meeting Phillips frequently mentioned his family’s frustration with his concentration choice. “For me, college was expected. My parents really pushed me to major in something that would make me a lot of money. It was hard for them to understand why I decided to major in sociology.”

It's not just family members that have a hard time understanding the choices these students make. For some students it's their friends.  “Most of my friends didn’t go to college,” Garcia says. “If they did, they went to ones at home, in Detroit. When I left to come to Ann Arbor, so many people felt like I was deliberately leaving them, like I thought I was too good for them,” she says.

Charlise Randall, a senior whose hometown of Ypsilanti is only 10 miles away feels similarly.“I don’t talk to anyone from home anymore,” she says. “It’s sad. My life has gone in a completely different direction than the people I grew up with.”

All the students agreed that being in college has made them feel disconnected from childhood friends and family members in some way. The organization wants to replace this feeling with a sense of pride. “We should be proud to be first-gens,” says treasurer Danielle Boshers. “We’ve had to overcome so many obstacles, so many barriers that the majority of students here have never experienced. We’ve made it."

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