Nov. 9, 2018

National First-Generation College Celebration Week Batten Style

Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia’s benevolent founder, believed education was a right—but just as freedom did not extend to all in 18th century America, he was also aware that education was available for only a select few. Much has changed since then, but for some and even many the university experience remains a daunting one—especially for first-generation students.

In celebration of “National First-Generation College Celebration Week,” the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, along with the broader UVA community, is recognizing its first-gen students, the challenges they face, and bringing awareness to the resources available to them.

Today, UVA has more than 1,500 students who are “first-gen.” President Jim Ryan, himself a first-gen student, has spoken about the “immense value” that first-gen UVA faculty, staff, and students bring to the University community. For first-gen students, access to higher education is not always a given, nor is the knowledge of how to gain that access. It’s called the Ivory Tower for a reason.

On Thursday morning, Nov. 8, students, faculty, and staff gathered in the Great Hall to share their experiences as first-generation students, and to discuss ideas for how the Batten School can better serve this community. Jeff Chidester, executive director of external affairs, led a lively discussion where participants spoke openly and candidly about the obstacles they have faced and continue to face as first-gen students. Just as there is a range of barriers first-gen students encounter before and during their higher ed experience, there is also a range of first-gen experiences.

“I feel like being black and also being first-gen is oftentimes the greatest challenge because when you’re black you expect everyone to be in the same position as you but coming to UVA that’s not the case,” said Nia Augustine, a second-year UVA student and intern with the Office of the Dean of Students who hopes to pursue a Master’s of Public Policy (MPP) degree at Batten. “When you talk about your finances—which is not shared with everyone—then you feel like you’re alienated even more in that community. I realized as well that being first-gen isn’t one specific identity to represent someone that is first-gen.”

And she’s right. A defining first-gen identity does not exist. First-generation students come from different backgrounds, and in some cases, different countries and cultures. That is their strength and also their immense value, as Pres. Ryan emphasized.  

But being a first-gen student is not so easy, as the discussion revealed. Many students, such as Ben Teese (MPP ’20), have incurred large amounts of debt as a result of poor advice and a lack of understanding about the higher education system and its immense costs.

Teese, who hails from northwest Virginia, grew up with parents who did not have college degrees and as a result did not know how to guide him in his college application process. Nor did they have the means to fund it.

Teese’s story is reminiscent of an all too familiar narrative, but one that is a stark reality for many first-gen students who not only struggle to find financial support but any support for that matter.

For Teese, finding a mentor was a game-changer. This was true of other participants, in particular, Shaka Sydnor, assistant dean in the Division of Student Affairs.

“When I was a sophomore in high school my Dad, who had been a bus driver for thirty years, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I ended up working at McDonald’s—almost 30 hours a week to help with bills which made my studies take a serious dip during my junior year resulting in me failing two classes,” he said. “But then there was this coach who for whatever reason, took me aside and said I needed to refocus on my academics so that I could ‘get out’ and pushed me to look into college.”

For many first-gen students, having just one person guide them, point them in the right direction, and more importantly believe in them made their first-gen experience less daunting. While mentors are crucial to the first-gen experience they cannot ease the financial or social pressure that many first-gen students struggle against.

“There’s both financial and the social capital that many of us lack,” said Molly Martin (MPP ’19). Martin, who received her bachelor’s from the University of Michigan, pointed out how there is a huge social factor in being a first-gen student which makes it hard to connect with others. “You can feel prepared academically—especially if you are determined and bright,” said Martin, who viewed academic excellence as a bastion against home life. “But you can feel like you’re lacking socially which makes it very hard to find a common ground with other students.”

As the discussion concluded and the coffee buzzes began to wane, there was a sense of possibility amongst the first-gen participants, who all agreed there needs to be more conversation and transparency about being a first-gen student at UVA. In particular, the group discussed concrete, proactive steps that can be taken to optimize the support given to first-gen students at the Batten School. Keeping in mind this is a determined group of individuals, one can expect more first-gen events and dialogue at Batten and across Grounds. Until then.