Being the First

Being the First

Inside the experiences and challenges of First-Gen Students at UNC

12 of the 22 members in the UNC First Gens Residential Learning Program (RLP)

The First-gen Identity

“If we want more first-generation students to thrive today, we need to understand what makes them unique… We need to see first-generation students as the pioneers they are,” (Dr. Richard Greenwald). At UNC-Chapel Hill, 20% of the undergraduate population are first-generation college students. While the technical definition of ‘first-generation’ varies according to the institution, UNC defines first-generation as a student whose parents or guardians do not have a bachelor’s degree.

It is essential for us as students, faculty, university administrators, and the general public to understand that opportunities for higher education have historically been limited for certain groups of people. One of these groups that is often overlooked is first-generation college students (FGCS), a large portion of which identify as members of racial/ethnic minorities, low-income households, and/or families with immigrant backgrounds. There are many systemic factors and family challenges that prevent these students from being able to attend college, but the obstacles don’t end once a FGCS enrolls in a higher education institution. However, despite the barriers they face, a research study from League shows that these students can thrive and perform successfully, especially when they are provided with ample support, community, and resources conducive to meeting their needs. The achievements and success of FGCS should be celebrated, and higher education institutions should make concrete plans and goals to attract, support, and retain higher percentages of FGCS.

First Gens RLP members enjoy a dinner together in Hinton James Residence Hall

FGCS Manny 4

Manny, a student in the First Gens RLP and future Resident Advisor

The Road Paved With Challenges

In order to understand the family history and backgrounds of FGCS at UNC, we must first look at the general trends and data gathered from FGCS in the US as a whole. This provides greater, more general insight into the demographics, psychographics, and family dynamics of FGCS. The infographic below highlights some of the differences between first-generation and continuing-generation students, as well as many of the challenges that FGCS experience. The general trends indicate that continuing-generation students experience some level of privilege in higher education that FGCS may not have, such as greater financial stability or college readiness.

Combating Challenges With Resources

While it may be that FGCS have the odds stacked against them, case study research has indicated that with the implementation of high-impact practices such as learning communities, FGCS can improve study skills, engagement, and self-efficacy, which will likely result in better academic results and retention rates (Journal of College Student Retention). Recently, universities have begun implementing high-impact practices, which are structured experiences and activities that promote student collaboration, engagement, and deeper learning. Examples of this can include living communities, first-year seminars, introductory writing courses, and more. These efforts may be specifically tailored to attract and engage students from underrepresented populations, such as FGCS.

In an article from the Daily Tar Heel, Carmen Huerta-Bapat, the director of the Carolina Firsts program in the office of Undergraduate Retention, shares that “first-generation students generally have strong character but may need extra guidance as they navigate the university.” The Office of Undergraduate Retention supports these “Carolina Firsts” by promoting opportunities for FGCS to connect with the Carolina Firsts Student Organization, and it also educates FGCS about campus resources. Carolina Firsts holds several events annually for FGCS to connect and celebrate their achievements, as well as to promote their academic success and overall well-being. Huera-Bapat emphasizes that the University values FGCS and the distinct backgrounds/perspectives they have to offer, and it aims to honor their experiences.

UNC First Gens Residential learning program

One very unique, high-impact program available through Carolina Housing is the First Gens Residential Learning Program (RLP). Residential Learning programs are offered across campus in different living communities for students who have a shared interest or common goal. Each RLP is open for students to apply through the Carolina Housing application, and the programs are facilitated by Resident Advisors (RA). The First Gens RLP is a community of FGCS who live and learn together in their first year at UNC-Chapel Hill. This RLP is located in Hinton James, a first-year residence hall on south campus, and this year the group has 22 members.

FGCS Lang Slang Photo

First Gens RLP members at the ‘Lang Slang’ & ice cream event

The purpose of the First Gens RLP is to create a safe, welcoming environment for first-year students who are the first in their families to attend college. The RLP members all live on the same floor of Hinton James, where they meet biweekly for programs that involve learning more about campus resources, and building relationships as they share about their different cultures and backgrounds. The RLP has had a significant impact in helping FGCS to feel at home at Carolina and connect with other students who come from similar walks of life and family backgrounds. The program is led by RA Alex Ramirez, a sophomore at UNC and fellow FGCS. Watch the video below to learn why Alex believes that the RLP offers such a unique Carolina experience.