First-gen professors reach out to first-gen students

'Now, as college faculty, I want my students to know what I didn't'

Faculty members who were the first in their families to attend college are in the perfect position to help connect first-generation students with campus resources, Melissa Scholes Young writes for The Atlantic

Young, who is now a professor at American University, says she moved from a small rural town in Missouri to attend Monmouth College with little understanding of how to navigate college life.

Her situation is far from rare: According to the College Board, more than 30% of undergraduate students today are the first in their families to attend college. However, first-generation students struggle in ways that their peers do not. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that these students have lower GPAs on average, and most of them require at least one remedial course. First-generation students also take more time to declare a major and are more likely to change majors throughout the course of their college careers.

Why first-generation students don't go to their advisors—and how to get them there

As a first-year student at Monmouth, Young faced challenges unlike anything she had experienced in high school. One such trial came in the form of a history class paper that she had done incorrectly. But instead of punishing Young for a paper riddled with mistakes and bordering on plagiarism, her professor supported her, showing Young how to write the paper properly and directing her to on-campus resources.

Inspired, Young now takes a similar approach to helping other first-generation students succeed, connecting students to the resources they need. 

Learn how Guide can help first-generation students navigate the "hidden curriculum"

"Writing centers and campus counselors and diversity-inclusion programs want students to succeed," Young says. "But as a first-generation college student I avoided all of them, assuming I couldn't afford the extra bill. Now, as college faculty, I want my students to know what I didn't."

Young has helped one first-generation student named Sarah both in and out of the classroom by directing her to on-campus resources. She even granted Sarah an extension on a paper—with the caveat that she visit the campus writing center.

Young does not consider such attention special treatment. Rather, she believes she is simply helping first-generation students access the resources and support that their peers already use.

Young has been hesitant in the past to disclose the fact that she was a first-generation student, but she says that it is important for first-generation faculty to share their stories. 

"First-generation college students need role models that have navigated similar paths and succeeded against the odds," Young says. "We bring a diversity of backgrounds and working-class experiences to the ivory tower."

She adds, "And there are benefits to not knowing the rules. In college and my career, I didn't know not to knock so I learned to knock louder" (Young, The Atlantic, 5/6). 

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