By Ronald Hanaki
Recently, ESU announced a new initiative aimed at helping first-generation college students. Dubbed “1st Gen,” students on campus have begun to see faculty members who were first-generation college students themselves proudly wearing the iconic red “1st Gen” button in recent weeks.
The button lets first-generation college students know that these professors are available as a resource to help first-generation college students like themselves transition to college life at ESU. The “1st Gen” project was started by Dr. Olivia Carducci from the Department of Mathematics.
Carducci was part of a team of ESU professors including Dr. Bonnie Green and Dr. Michelle Jones-Wilson responsible for winning a $4 million grant from the NSF (National Science Foundation) to help transfer students get settled at ESU last year.
As part of her research, Carducci began to read articles and found that first-generation faculty at the University of California at Irvine were wearing “1st Gen” t-shirts during moving day.
Carducci stated, “I thought that this was something that we could do here at ESU, and it is not very expensive.”
But instead of wearing t-shirts, ESU Provost Dr. Joanne Bruno suggested the idea of wearing buttons, and Dr. David Mazure from the Department of Art designed the button.
“The buttons are something that faculty can wear to open house, and the added benefit of the buttons is that they are less expensive than t-shirts,” said Carducci.
Carducci went on to explain the importance of the project.
“A lot of our first-gen students almost all use the word ‘overwhelming’ because everything is foreign to them,” stated Carducci.
“There are new living arrangements,” said Carducci. “There are new ways of studying.”
“I am surprised at what students don’t know about being in college,” stated Carducci.
“Everyone seems to know what they are doing, but some first-gen college students may not know what those words means,” said Carducci. “So this looked like a good way to help people.”
“For example, [faculty] office hours are a time for students to ask questions. These are things that I think every student should know, but some don’t because students whose parents didn’t go to college may not know what office hours are,” said Carducci. “Some of our students may not know that they have to register for the spring semester in the middle of the fall semester.”
Christian Ferro is a first-generation college student double-majoring in criminal justice and political science.
Ferro said, “I did not know about the ‘1st Gen’ program, but I think it’s a really great thing for ESU to do because it took me a couple of semester before I could finally hit the ground running.”
Carducci said, “This is brand new. So the fact that people haven’t heard of it yet is not surprising.”
“Being featured on the home page is a good start,” said Carducci. “But it’s mostly a word-of-mouth campaign so far.”
Many faculty members who were themselves first-generation college students are eager to wear the buttons to show their support.
Professor Cynthia Hamill was herself a first-generation college student who was one of the early supporters of the “1st Gen” project.
Hamill said, “I think Dr. Carducci’s idea is wonderful. It’s something that I think all of us in that position need to give back to other students because we know first-hand the struggles that they are going through.”
“By wearing one of these buttons, we are letting other first-generation college students know that we are someone you can approach,” said Hamill. “We are open to answering your questions because we can relate to your experience.”
“For first-generation college students, it may feel like they are part of two different cultures. There are family conflicts, too. So it’s not always easy,” said Hamill.
“Your family wants you to do something, but you have to study for an exam,” said Hamill.
Dr. Laurene Clossey is a Professor of Social Work and a first-generation college student herself.
“It was scary to be 18 and at a big school,” said Clossey. “It would have been nice if someone told me what college was like and told me that it wasn’t so scary.”
“First-gens understand the struggle because there may be nobody that they can talk to, especially about graduate school,” said Clossey. “But they can come and talk to me.”
“I talk to them about financial aid and help them think through life after ESU,” said Clossey. “I see my job as a way to help students figure things out.”
Dr. Marianne Cutler is a Professor of Sociology. She was also a first-generation college student and a proud wearer of the ‘1st Gen’ button.
“First-generation college students are often among those students who struggle financially and are here on financial aid in various ways,” said Cutler. “And that has an impact on their ability to get through here.”
“So I think ‘1st Gen’ is great and would love to see it happen more and more,” said Cutler. “It makes me proud to be part of ESU and proud of us as an institution.”
Carducci said, “They [ESU faculty wearing ‘1st Gen’ buttons] are an example. They can say that they were the first in their families to go to college.”
Carducci herself was not a first-generation college student.
“Some first-gen students who are trying college for the first time might say something like my mother wants me to do something, but she thinks that it’s okay to skip class to do it,” said Carducci.
“My mother would never ask me to do that,” stated Carducci.
Professors are not the only resource for first-generation college students. For those seeking help, students can email “firstname.lastname@example.org” where they can get help. The email address is currently being monitored by Justin Amann in the Provost’s Office. Amann himself was a first-generation college student.
Amann stated, “The email address is designed for any first-gen student to shoot us a message.”
“If you are first-generation student with a question, we can help you,” said Amann.
“We have received a few emails already, and some students have asked us for buttons,” said Amann. “We’ve already heard from a few students who have told us what a great project this is.”
The buttons are being given away like hotcakes proving that the message is resonating with the ESU community.
“For first-gen students, many of them don’t have a sense of belonging. So we want to get rid of that stigma,” said Amann.
“Being a first-generation college student is something that they should be proud of,” said Amann. “It should not be something that students hide behind.”
“Right now it’s about awareness [of the ‘1st Gen’ project]. It’s being featured on our [ESU’s] website,” said Amann. “We plan to bring it to open houses and all areas where people can wear the button and start the conversation.”
“Then we can sit down and talk about how we can better serve our first-generation college students,” said Amann.
“But it shows how we as an institution are committed to helping student populations facing unique struggles,” said Amann. “Stuff like that is a credit to our leadership.”
“It’s because of people like our Dean of Student Life [Dr. Cornelia Sewell Allen], our President [Dr. Marcia Welsh], our Provost [Dr. Joanne Bruno] and Dr. Doreen Tobin that this kind of work is being done here,” said Amann. “I’m just fortunate to be a part of it.”
Amann may be being modest because Carducci said, “Justin worked hard on this project.”
Matthew Deegan is a first-generation college student and President of ESU College Republicans.
“I had a ton of questions about financial aid and what classes would benefit me the most,” said Deegan. “So for someone like me, it would have been beneficial.”
Blair Williams is a graduate student in political science and the first in her family to tackle graduate school.
Williams said, “An event would be helpful, but it’s neat that it is on the website.”
“If you work hard and do what you do and become successful, then you can help people down the road,” said Williams.
Carducci is both excited and hopeful that this project will take off.
“At open house, parents will see that ESU has a plan in place to support this particular need,” said Carducci.
“Ideally, it will result in us having a higher percentage of first-year students enroll here because they feel welcome,” stated Carducci. “And we will see more first-generation college students graduating.”
Hamill is even more ambitious.
“It’s about making people feel that they belong and embracing each other–not just as part of the college experience, but life in general,” said Hamill. “If we can get people accepting one another and working for everyone’s common dream, we are stronger together.”
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