Coming to college can be daunting for many reasons. It could be daunting because you are 10 hours from home for the first time. Maybe you haven’t met a soul at the university you’ll be attending. But for a select population of students, going to college is daunting because they are the first in their family to do it.
First-generation students, commonly known as “first-gen,” are committed to telling their stories and sharing the experiences they’ve had at the university, and recently they had that opportunity through the First-Gen Student Network, a group that was established in 2021. The First-Gen Student Network hosts events and shares resources catered to students who are interested in plugging into a community that can relate to their experiences as “the first.” Unknown and unexpected challenges can exist for first-gen students as they navigate their time in college at a big school, all while multi-gen students do not know the true definition of first-gen students.
“Last year, we worked to form a definitive definition of what a first-generation student is and added a question about being a first-generation student to Ole Miss applications,” Racheal Embry, a psychology student from Olive Branch, said. “The First-Gen Student Network is working across campus and through partnerships with other organizations to create a welcoming atmosphere for first-generation students to give them the information, resources and support we need to succeed.”
Alexis Wager, a first-gen graduate student, says that the First-Gen Student Network is part of the university focusing more resources on first-gen students.
“First-gen life is growing. There is both a first-gen undergraduate group and graduate group,” Wagner said. “These groups work to support first-gen students with some of the unique challenges that come along with being the first, as well as providing a safe and supportive space for friendships and connections to be made.”
According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, one-third of college students are first-gen. At Ole Miss, it is estimated less than 25% of students are first-generation. More than 130 participate in the First-Generation Student Network at the University of Mississippi.
With the resources in place to assist, misconceptions and lack of awareness still exist.
“A big misconception is that first-gens experience the same scenarios in the same way as multi-gen students,” Dr. Melissa Jones, the assistant director at the Lott Leadership Institute, said.
Jones is a first-gen grad herself.
“If a first-gen looks good academically on paper — good test scores and grades — then people think, “Oh they’re smart,” said Jones. “Where in actuality, the support needed for connections, etc. is greater and shouldn’t be overlooked just because they seem strong academically.”
First-gen student success does not solely rely on academic performance, either.
“A common misconception about first- gen students or student life is the fact that ‘“we all have the same experience’ when we truly do not,” Wagner said. “As a first-generation student you don’t have any idea what to expect or how to do certain things that may seem like ‘basic college things” such as ordering books, scheduling classes, financial aid or even how meal plans work and what resources the campus has.”
In an article from Ole Miss News, Clara Turnage shared 10 things that Ashleen Williams, faculty advisor for the First-Generation Student Network, and Annette Kluck, dean of the Graduate School, believe first-gen students should know.
Some of the items on that list include familiarizing themselves with the office of financial aid, finding a meaningful mentor and joining, but not over-join. These are things that first-gen students might not think to do throughout their college career, but Williams and Kluck aimed to provide advice, combined with resources that are accessible.
Even with those challenges, many of the first-gen students have found their niche through campus involvement and the first-gen network.
“I am very involved on campus and most of this involvement is a consequence of conversations with friends or mentors who helped me find ways to become involved,” Embry said. “I serve as the vice president of the First-Gen Student Network, a liberal arts ambassador and an honors college ambassador.”
Embry is also a member of multiple honor societies, volunteers at a local church and manages a psychology lab on campus.
For Wagner, involvement has been essential to her success here as a graduate student.
“I am a member of Women in Leadership, the Association for Graduate Women in STEM and the skills workshop chair for the BioMolecular Sciences Student Advocate, BSA,” she added. “I am also involved with my cohort in networking and department events on campus.”
Sophomore Adam Soltani came to Oxford as a first-gen student because of an academic program.
“I was drawn to the Arabic Flagship Program at Ole Miss, its financial affordability, and vast opportunities for upward social mobility made me want to stay,” Soltani said. “On campus, I am the vice-president of the Muslim Student Association, a Research Assistant in the National Center for Natural Products Research and a General Chemistry SI Leader.”
The 2021 Mr. Ole Miss, Ian Pigg, was a first-gen student. After winning his title, Pigg and Miss Ole Miss, Madison Gordon, established the First-Generation Scholarship. This scholarship would be awarded to a deserving first-gen student to help fund educational opportunities. The fund raised more than $6,000, and aimed to increase over time.
Pigg was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Student Activities Association, The Columns Society and held leadership positions across campus. Using his opportunity to campaign for Mr. Ole Miss allowed a spotlight to be put on the first-gen student population.
“The university is working to help support our first-gen groups both physically and financially,” Wagner said. “We have had the pleasure of having immense support from Chancellor Boyce, Dr. Kluck, Dr. Godfrey, Dr. Edney and numerous others. Having such prominent support on campus allows us to feel welcome and safe in a very anxious environment.”
The university has made strides recently in supporting this community, most notably through financial support and the establishment of the First-Gen Student Network.
“It has been great to see the attention the university has given to first-generation students these past few years,” first-gen undergrad student Edrei Pena said. “I believe the First-Generation Network has been able to be successful with their help and support of us.”
With heightened support comes unique opportunities, such as celebrating first-gen week.
Andy Flores, the current president of the First-Generation Network, recently took part in a video released by the university, where he and another first-generation student had a conversation about aspects of student life, support that is in place and their personal experiences as first-gen student week kicked off.
Along with the video conversation, other students weighed in on the events and the importance of the celebrations.
“Almost every individual shared the feeling of being out of place or feeling in the dark about information everyone else seemed to know,” Embry said. “The panelists discussed their struggles as a result of a lack of knowledge and how they overcame these struggles with the help of resources and mentors.”
The challenges and opportunities of being a first-gen student results in a multitude of life lessons for these outstanding students.
“My freshman year, I was worried about what people would say or think if I asked ‘dumb’ questions about college or if I didn’t know something about being a college student,” said Embry. “Now, I have resources and individuals who I feel comfortable asking those questions. Through the First-Gen Student Network, I have been able to advocate for myself and for students like me to see change on campus.”