By Elliott Nguyen
What really makes a first-generation college student? Is it just a matter of whether someone in your family has gone to college before you? What if they attended, but did not graduate?
These are the questions that Dr. Nadya Pancsofar, an early childhood special education professor and undergraduate coordinator at the College, has been attempting to answer as part of her “ROSCOE Educators” program, which began in January. A mentorship program, it pairs student mentors with younger first-generation students who need help navigating their college experience. The mentors themselves are first-generation students — in hopes that they might better understand how to help student participants.
However, she and those she worked with quickly realized that there are many ways to define a first-generation student.
“When I started planning this program, I thought I knew what a first-generation college student meant,” said Pancsofar, who does not identify as one herself. During the spring 2021 semester, she conducted interviews with 20 first-generation college students in the School of Education.
One of the main reasons that the “first-generation” identifier is used in college students is, aside from noting achievement, to make clear that such students may lack resources or knowledge that would otherwise make their time easier — for example, a family member who could help guide their application process, explain what kinds of things to bring to a dorm or give advice on how to get involved on campus. Even having a parent with an alma mater to which a student could apply and thus be more likely to be accepted into is a resource that first-generation college students may not have access to.
However, as Pancsofar noted, there are many conditions that can create that lack of resources, not just one.
“Maybe their parents went to college in another country and then moved to the United States,” Pancsofar said. “Maybe their parents went to college just before they did, a little later in life. There are nuances to the identity of a first-generation college student that have been really wonderful to discover and talk about with students.”
Thus, in preparation for the launch, she asked questions — with a protocol developed by students — to understand what students’ experiences have been at the College. Some things they focused on, according to Pancsofar, included coursework, leadership opportunities, extracurriculars and worries.
“It was important that we built a program that was authentic and belonged, really, to the students,” Pancsofar said. “We started with trying to root ourselves in the student experience.”
This semester, the program consisted of roughly 16 people — though they hope to expand as the program moves out of its pilot phase. Pancsofar herself was a faculty mentor alongside Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at the College. There were also nine freshman educators, three peer mentors and two students who were conducting program evaluation. Additionally, Jamal Johnson, the senior assistant director for mentoring and retention at the College, ran training sessions in January and served as a “heavy presence in advising (Pancsofar and her team) through the development process,” according to Pancsofar.
Dell’Angelo, who was a first-generation college student herself, is very active in advising and thus was recruited to join the program. She explained how the nine titular “ROSCOE educators,” all freshmen, fit into the structure of the program.
“They are the first-generation students,” Dell’Angelo said. “They don’t have a formal role. The program is built around what they think their needs are.”
They serve as a sort of trial for the program, helping the team running the program to learn more about what works and what does not in preparation for upcoming semesters in which the program could expand. There would be meetings every other week, as well as sessions that included guest speakers, to help the group of freshmen analyze their time at the College thus far and determine what assistance they require.
Dell’Angelo noted, though, that the nature of those sessions could change in subsequent semesters as the group of students they work with changes. For example, next semester, students currently in the program, who will then be sophomores, can remain part of it in addition to any incoming freshmen that join.
Lizzeth Jaramillo, a junior speech pathology and audiology major, is one of the student researchers for the program.
“The school hasn’t done much with first-generation students,” Jaramillo said. “They don’t really extend their hand. One of the main goals is for first-generation students to feel like they’re not lost. Most are applying to college by themselves. Student mentorships, internship opportunities, helping with their schedule. Things that seem common sense aren’t so much common sense.”
Jaramillo said it was somewhat difficult to reach out to students and get them interested in the program, because many of them do not themselves know if they qualify as a first-generation student. Part of that problem, said Jaramillo, could be because the topic is not brought up that often.
Dell’Angelo confirmed that these are struggles she faced herself when in college.
“I remember very clearly feeling like I didn’t wanna ask questions, because it seemed like everybody else knew,” she said. “I would try to figure things out on my own. Sometimes I just never figured them out and so I missed out on opportunities. I studied alone. I didn’t use the supports that were on campus. I probably could have been more successful in undergrad had I had those supports.”
As a result, she was happy to help the program when asked, and felt inspired to use her experiences to help current students.
“Some of these students, they may be feeling the same way,” Dell’Angelo said. “[Pancsofar] and I aren’t necessarily waiting for them to ask. We can anticipate that maybe they’ve got questions. Having been through it, I do have a little bit of an understanding of that.”
Jaramillo said the program has given her more perspective.
“It’s kind of interesting to see how other students are dealing with it,” she said. “As a junior now, I want to be a part of something that makes freshman me want to join this.”