By Ellen Ciurczak, Hattiesburg American
Hattiesburg, MS (AP) – Southern Miss sophomore Brandon Rue is doing something no one else in his family has ever done – he’s going to college. Rue, like a majority of students at the University of Southern Mississippi, is a first-generation college student. Because of that distinction, he has found college a little more difficult than students whose parents have college degrees.
“I didn’t have the proper resources at home,’’ he said. “It was a struggle to know who to talk to, what to look for in a college, how to choose a college.
“I didn’t know what to expect or how to handle situations college students go through. I talked to adults on campus about it, but the struggle was finding those people.’’
According to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education, about 50 percent of the college population is made up of students whose parents never enrolled in a school of higher education. The National Center for Education Statistics finds 30 percent of all entering freshmen are first-generation college students.
First-generation students may find themselves facing unique challenges and without the family support that other students have. The First Generation Foundation reports first-generation students are significantly less likely to graduate than peers whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, 89 percent of low-income, first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. More than a fourth leave after their first year – four times the rate of higher-income, second-generation students.
First-generation students are more likely to be older when they begin their studies, more commonly have paying jobs and are less likely to feel supported at home. They are less likely to make use of college support services and resources than their counterparts. They are also less likely to enter competitive institutions and, when they do, are more likely to be academically under prepared.
For Rue, the problems only got worse on day one.
“The whole move-in process wasn’t smooth,’’ he said. “I didn’t know what to do or what to bring.
“Then, when classes started, I didn’t know how to buy books or how to study, and I didn’t have my family to call on.’’
Amy Miller, Southern Miss vice provost for academic affairs, said the university’s first-generation students may feel alone in their struggles.
“We try from orientation on to acknowledge that we are proud to serve a large first-generation student body,’’ she said. “A lot of times, they don’t realize their challenges aren’t unique.
“They may feel embarrassed about it, but we are glad to have them here.’’
Miller said even the terminology of university life can prove problematic.
“Higher education is a world unto itself,’’ she said. “You start talking about credit hours, syllabi … it’s its own language. For first-generation students it can be really difficult.’’
Miller said sometimes relatives still at home may not understand what it takes to survive at college.
“Their family members may not understand the demands on (the student’s) time,’’ she said. “They may not understand the student needs to remain on campus. (The family) may not see college as worthwhile.’’
For Rue, the tension created with family had to do with his parents not realizing what he was achieving at Southern Miss.
“They didn’t understand the milestones,’’ he said. “They’re not there to say, `Oh, that’s great.’ I’ve got to find that self-motivation.
“My mom says all the time she wants me to come home, but I know I don’t want to come home.’’
Jamar James, a freshman and first-generation student at Jones County Junior College, certainly encountered some challenges when he enrolled at Concordia College in Selma, Alabama, in 2016. Academically and financially stressed, he didn’t make it and had to drop out to work for a semester.
Now back in school at JCJC, he’s doing much better.
“I love it – I love school. I love learning,’’ he said. “Having an opportunity like this – I jumped on it. I wanted to get my degree.’’
The academic coaching offered to every JCJC freshmen for the first time this school year has helped James tremendously. His cheerleading coach is also his academic coach.
“She’s staying on my butt, making sure I’m getting my grades,’’ he said. “Grades are important because I want to go to other places.
“I feel like whatever I put my mind to, I can do it.’’
Even with his confidence and good attitude, James has encountered some obstacles at JCJC.
“Some of my classes have been pretty hard,’’ he said. “I’ve had to have a tutor so I can pull up my grades.
“At first, math was a little rocky for me. I didn’t do great on my first test.’’
James is one of a number of first-generation college students enrolled at JCJC. Amanda McLeod, director of the Student Success Center, said many of them come in for academic coaching and tutoring.
“We don’t specifically have a program we say is for first-generation students,’’ she said. “A lot of them don’t like a label put on them.
“But we realize first-generation students sometimes don’t seek help, so we want to be proactive getting to them.’’
McLeod said the goal of the academic coaching is to connect freshmen to campus resources and drive student success and those objectives are especially helpful for first-generation students.
“They come to us with a different set of struggles,’’ she said. “I would say No. 1 is financial – wondering how can they pay for school. How do I apply for financial aid?’’
McLeod said the first-generation student may also lack educational skills.
“They may have not have academic self-esteem, time management skills, grit – not giving up when the first obstacle comes their way,’’ she said. “We want to reach out to them, let them know who to go to, let them know it’s OK to ask for help.’’
At William Carey University, where about 40 percent of the students are first generation, the outreach starts at freshman orientation, where all students are paired with a student and also a faculty or staff mentor.
Sparkle Polk, student assistance coordinator, said those mentors are there for the students all year long.
“They’ll check in throughout the year and ask if they need any assistance, are they struggling?’’ she said.
Polk said Carey also has people first-generation students can to talk to if they are having problems adjusting.
“We offer counseling or they can always talk to me about what it’s like to be in college,’’ she said. “We have pamphlets on how to adjust to being away from home, how to spend their time wisely, how to study.’’
Tutoring, workshops and academic coaching are also available to first-generation students at Southern Miss. Miller said the university wants to do everything it can to help its first-generation students succeed.
“It’s a big part of our culture here at Southern Miss,’’ she said. “We see ourselves serving the first-generation student and want the educational experience to be transformative for them.’’
Officials at Pearl River Community College did not respond to questions about their first-generation college students.