The early November day was chilly, but the enthusiasm added tremendous warmth as first-generation undergraduate and graduate students gathered in the Pit for pizza, photos, cake and conversation.
The Nov. 8 event was one of several ways UNC-Chapel Hill joined in the 2019 National First-Generation College Celebration, an initiative of the Center for First-generation Student Success and the Council for Opportunity in Education. Earlier in 2019, the center announced that UNC-Chapel Hill had been named a “First Forward Advisory Institution,” among the inaugural cohort of academic institutions nationwide recognized for their commitment to supporting first-generation success.
“I am exceptionally proud of the fact that UNC-Chapel Hill has Carolina Firsts for undergraduates and Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS for graduate and professional students,” said Maria Erb, co-director of The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success (DSS) program. “We are one of the very few higher education institutions in the country to have a formal program that recognizes and encourages the success of both populations.”
A kickoff “Home for the Holidays” event on Nov. 7 featured a discussion about how first-generation students can navigate discussions and dynamics when returning home, or what it’s like if they are not able to go home. Erinn Scott and Malini Basdeo, facilitators of the Counseling and Psychological Services’ First in the Family group, led the discussion. A screening of the documentary “Unlikely,” followed by a discussion led by Carolina Firsts and Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS student leaders, on Nov. 8 concluded the activities.
Carolina Firsts was created in 2008 with support from the Office of Undergraduate Education, within the College of Arts & Sciences, and New Student & Family Programs, within UNC Student Affairs, to create a sense of community for first-generation college students. Carolina Firsts programs support students through signature events such as a welcome back reception and a graduation recognition and pinning ceremony, as well as individual student success consultations.
Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS began as the idea of three graduate students within the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and it was incorporated into DSS during the 2016-2017 academic year. Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS offers a wide variety of activities and networking opportunities for graduate students campus-wide.
“It is important that undergraduate and graduate student ‘firsts’ are visible on campus because it demonstrates the diversity of the student body on campus and their unique lived experiences,” said Carmen Gonzalez, director of the Lookout Scholars Program, which supports incoming first-generation college students.
“It is also important for our undergraduate Carolina Firsts to see students like themselves pursuing graduate degrees; I hope in turn that graduate students see the impact they have as mentors who have knowledge and experience to share with undergraduate Carolina Firsts.”
What does it mean to you to be a first-generation graduate student in your family?
Blaque Robinson, doctoral student in sociology
“Being the first in my family to attend graduate school is a major feat for me. I would not be here without my family and so I dedicate this journey to them, especially Velta Hill, my grandmother, and my younger siblings who are in their early years of their undergraduate career.”
Annie Francis, doctoral student in social work
“Validation not just for me but also for my family and my tribal community. The capacity or innate ability to be successful in higher education has always been there but opportunity has not. Just being a graduate student in my family instills hope for those who are to come, kind of like a symbol that access to opportunity is possible, even to those from my home community. It also means that I am responsible for bringing those skills back to serve my tribal community, the Haliwa-Saponi people of North Carolina.”
Amy Glazier, doctoral student in physics and astronomy
“It means a whole realm of possibilities that hasn’t been accessible to anyone in my family before me. I’m only three generations removed from farmers. Neither of my parents went to college; my mom finished high school, and my dad dropped out of high school to go into work. My older sister graduated college but did not pursue a graduate degree because guaranteed financial support wasn’t available in the humanities (unlike most STEM fields), so she went right to work in a career she enjoys. So, things worked out for my family in the end, but when I realized I wanted to be an astronomer, I figured out that meant I needed to go to college and to this mysterious thing called graduate school.
Being a first-generation grad student has definitely made me feel like an outsider at times, but spending time with the Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS and my wonderful grad student colleagues has helped me feel more at home. When I teach classes here, I have come to realize that being a first-generation grad student also helps me empathize and engage with my students from a place of understanding. I had been homeschooled my whole life, and started at a community college where many of us were nontraditional students in some way; it never occurred to me that I was ‘weird’ until I transferred to a four-year college where nobody I knew had a background like mine. At times I wondered whether people like me just didn’t ‘make it’ in STEM. It’s humbling and an honor to me that now I can be the kind of example to my students that I needed when I was in their place, to help them know that no matter how different they may be from their vision of a typical student, they belong here and they can succeed here, too.”