Campus Life

First in the Family

First-generation college students face particular financial, social and academic challenges. At Elmhurst, they find the support they need to make family history.

When Francisco Silva was 10 years old, he moved with his parents from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the suburbs west of Chicago. Silva’s parents made the move so their son could get the kind of education they never had. Years later, Silva discovered that being the first in your family to attend college is a dream and a privilege, but it comes with its own particular challenges.

A junior at Elmhurst, Silva is an aspiring teacher, majoring in music education. Like nearly all first-generation college students, he has to work hard to finance his education. A strong student in high school, he earned a Dean’s Scholarship, took out student loans and works 25 hours a week at Starbucks.

Another challenge for Silva is less tangible, and more specific to first-generation students. When the going gets tough in college, he wishes he could turn to his family for advice. But nobody in his family has ever experienced anything like what he’s going through. “You’re alone, basically,” he says. “You face everything new.”

Making the transition from high school to college is tough enough for any student, but the challenges are especially daunting for those with no family history in higher education. Like Silva, many “first-gens” face financial pressures, especially when family members lack personal experience in navigating the maze of federal, state, private and institutional financial aid options.

According to a study published in The College Student Journal, first-gens also are more likely to come from a low-income household, more likely to be a minority, and more likely to speak a language other than English at home. Some struggle to embrace their new college lives without alienating parents who never had the opportunity for a good education. Some say they feel guilty about pursuing a costly college degree while their families continue to struggle financially.

It all is enough to derail a surprising portion of first-generation students. According to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education, just 11 percent of first-generation students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Among their peers, the figure is 55 percent. Bridging this gap is essential for the United States to become a more innovative, productive and equitable society.
So why is Silva thriving when so many others stumble?

He points to the support he has found at Elmhurst through programs like Direct Connect, a pre-orientation session for first-generation students that aims to link the newcomers to all the people and resources they need to succeed 
in undergraduate life. The students meet other first-gens, get an advance glimpse of campus life, and learn how to find the people who can answer their questions. By the time he’d begun his first term at Elmhurst, Silva says, he already felt at home. He now sings tenor in the Choral Union and is active in HABLAMOS, the Latino student group.

That’s the kind of engagement the College wants to encourage, says Roger Moreano, the director of intercultural student affairs who oversees Direct Connect. A couple of decades ago, Moreano himself was a first-generation student at Northern Illinois University. He remembers feeling uneasy about entering campus life. “I knew I wanted to be involved on campus, but I didn’t know who to talk to.”

Pamela Silva, a sophomore first-generation student (and no relation to Francisco), credits Direct Connect with helping her make the transition to college and get involved on campus. “Direct Connect broke the ice for me. It gave me a feel for what college is about and it gave me an idea of what to expect,” Silva says. “You go in saying, ‘I don’t know anyone’ and ‘I’m not sure how this works,’ and you end up feeling  ‘Yeah, this is a good place for me.’”

Romison Saint-Louis knows the feeling. A native of Haiti, Saint-Louis moved with his family to suburban Niles, Illinois, when he was 7. Like Silva and Moreano, he became the first member of his family to attend college. The prospect was daunting. “When I saw some of the gpas and test scores of other students, I freaked out,” he says. “I wasn’t sure about matching up to some of the really smart kids.”

Like Silva, Saint-Louis plans to become a teacher. He’s now a senior majoring in elementary education. He says his own teachers and advisers helped build his confidence. “I kept hearing the faculty and staff here really care and want to help,” he says. “So I went and talked to people. It made a huge difference.” He played football for a while, and the team made a difference, too. These days, Saint-Louis is the president of the College chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the vice president of Lambda Chi Alpha, an active member of the Global Poverty Club, and a resident adviser in Niebuhr Hall.
Some first-generation students say it can be difficult to embrace their new college lives without alienating parents who never had the opportunity to attend college. “That cultural separation from home is something other students don’t necessarily have to worry about,” says Rabia Khan ’98, a former first-gen at Elmhurst who is now assistant director of residence life at Loyola University Chicago. “First-generation students sometimes have to educate their parents about college. They have to explain why it’s important to live on campus, for example, or just how much work they have to do as a college student.”

One of the biggest predictors of success for first-generation students is the type of college they choose. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, first-gens are more likely than others to start out at community colleges, probably for financial reasons. This factor reduces their chances of ultimately earning a baccalaureate degree. The research also shows that such students are more likely to complete a four-year degree if they start at a four-year college.

That is no surprise to Khan. She recalls the kind of support she found at Elmhurst, and seeks to provide the same kind of support to students at Loyola. “People at Elmhurst who didn’t even know me worked to help me to succeed,” she says. “That’s why I’m in this profession now. I would never pass up a chance to help a student.”

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