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Making the Path as they Walk

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Tufts First-Generation Student Council is a new student-led initiative to support those who are the first in their families to go to college.

First-generation college student with message on whiteboard

It is a self-evident but often unacknowledged truth that the college experience can be daunting, even under the very best circumstances. For most students, it is their first time away—perhaps thousands of miles away—from home and family. It is a brave new world of both enticing freedom and serious responsibilities that requires young people to perform a difficult balancing act. At an academically rigorous school like Tufts, that task is even tougher, and can often lead to discouragement and frustration.

For some, who are the first in their families to pursue or complete a college education, there is an added layer of difficulty. Without parents or close relatives to turn to for advice or understanding, first-generation college students often feel adrift in uncharted waters.

“Most of the things that college students struggle with in the transition to college are just magnified for first-gen students,” says Laura Doane, Associate Dean of Orientation and Student Transition at Tufts. “This is a unique population. There’s overlap with first-generation Americans, but they aren’t the same thing … and a lot of first-gen students are also low-income students.”

In order to support this complex community, a group of undergraduate students led by Katelyn Montalvo, A15, is spearheading the Tufts First Generation Student Council. Initially the brainchild of a former Tufts administrator, Montalvo and a small group of first-gen peers took the reins last year and are hoping to transform the First-Gen Council into a resource for any and all who self-identify as a first-generation student at the university.

Creating a Community

“We’re coming together over this idea that we don’t have a community here at Tufts,” says Montalvo, a junior Tisch Scholar who has made the council her Scholar project. She was encouraged to take a leadership role in the still nascent organization last year by another first-gen member of the Tufts community: Provost David Harris.

“He was talking about his struggles as a first-gen student throughout college, and it really inspired me because I thought: ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel,’” says Montalvo. “Freshman year I didn’t have any guidance and I was really frustrated, and I didn’t know why I was frustrated. And I realized: I’m a first-gen student; I don’t have any people, really, to talk to.”

Provost Harris later participated in a panel that brought together first-gen students, faculty, and staff who had had faced similar challenges. That gathering has gone on to inform much of the council’s work this academic year; for example, its focus on self-identification. Many of those who went to the panel did not fit the narrow federal definition of a first-generation student — one whose parents or guardians did not complete a bachelor’s degree.

Those who self-identify as first-generation, however, encompass a wide range of situations and experiences, which makes it difficult for administrators who may want to support them. “Our only way to identify students as first-gen is through the parental education information through the admissions application,” says Doane. She adds that, while she tries to identify first-gen students and point them toward certain university resources, the council is playing a vital role.

“The idea behind the council is that it is student run, so it’s more relevant,” she says. “This is a Tufts priority, but students are in charge of it for the better.”

Hard to be First

That connection with other first-generation students has already helped undergraduates like David Andrade, A15, another member of the council. “I’ve received a lot of emotional support through talking with first-gen students here, because being a first-gen student does take a toll on your emotional health,” says Andrade.

He describes some of the difficulties familiar to many first-generation students.

“Sometimes my family asks: ‘why aren’t you doing that well?’ Well, it’s a hard school. And they understand that it’s hard, but I don’t think they realize that it’s hard being away from home, and finding a new community here,” says Andrade, adding that the council has helped fill that void. “Having this network is really nice, because we help each other when we’re stressed.”

Besides helping each other through the tough times, the council has also started reaching out to the next generation of first-gen students through college access visits with local high-schoolers. One particular visit, organized through Tisch College, was especially satisfying for Montalvo and the council, who were able to engage the students in frank conversations about the first-gen college experience.

“They were asking really intimate questions that I was never able to ask when I went on a college tour,” she says. “That was never addressed when I went to college, and these kids felt that space to be able to ask those very intimate questions that you don’t usually ask administrators. I thought it was really cool.”

Montalvo says the council hopes to continue reaching out to local high-schoolers while working on other initiatives, like a first-gen alumni network and a mentoring program involving Tufts faculty and staff. “The whole idea of the First-Gen Student Council is that this is a new space that you have no connections to whatsoever,” says Montalvo. “So the idea is to create this community with alumni, faculty, and staff in order to create that social capital for first-gen students so we don’t feel so completely isolated.”

Growing Together

In order to strengthen that community, and to create awareness of just how many people on campus self-identify as first-generation college students, the council recently conducted its “I’m First!” campaign. Montalvo and her peers invited any Tufts student, professor, or staff member who identify as first-generation to have his or her picture taken with a short message about what it means to be a first-generation student. So far, more than 50 members of the Tufts community have had their picture taken, including Tisch College Dean Alan D. Solomont and Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco.

Along with its increased visibility on campus, next year the group will benefit from an official First-Gen Council Coordinator work-study position, one of the ways that Tufts administrators are supporting this valuable initiative. “It’s just a really good idea, and they’re doing amazing work,” says Doane.

Montalvo hopes that the increased awareness and support will make a tangible difference for first-generation students at Tufts.

“I feel like, for a lot of first-gen students, college was the dream, but we never really thought about life once we got into college,” she says. Now that Montalvo and her peers have thought about it, the path may be just a little easier for the next students who walk on it.