Setting Up First-Generation College Students for Success – Syracuse University News

“It takes a village to raise a child.”
This ancient proverb has been used by everyone from teachers to elected officials to describe the important role a community plays in creating a safe, healthy environment where children can grow and thrive while realizing their hopes and dreams.
Though they are not children and their needs vary on a case-by-case basis, the saying is also apt for the more than 2,700 first-generation college students enrolled at Syracuse University.
When high school graduates leave behind their hometowns, their family members and their friends to pursue their academic dreams, they face a daunting task in trying to acclimate to life on a college campus.
First-generation students make up roughly 19% of the Syracuse University student body (according to the most recent figures from the Fall 2020 semester), and they face challenges that are both vastly different and potentially greater in number than their peers. And unlike their peers, if first-generation college students have questions, they can’t rely on consulting with a college-educated family member to resolve the situation.
Challenges like:
This can lead to feeling isolated, like you don’t belong on campus. It’s a feeling Courtney Bennett ’23 felt when she first stepped onto Syracuse University’s campus.
Luckily for the University’s first-generation college students, they have a wide array of resources available to them as they adjust to life on campus.
First-generation college student Courtney Bennett (left) credits the resources available to her on campus with helping her reach her goals. Craig Tucker (right) helps connect students like Bennett to those essential resources on campus.
A Small Fish in a Big Sea
During her first semester, Courtney Bennett felt lost, like “a small fish in a big sea.” She struggled to maintain her academics while striving to find community. But after utilizing the many campus resources available to her, Bennett soon thrived and discovered her community.
Take Bennett’s case. Bennett, who is studying political science in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, hopes to attend law school once she completes her undergraduate degree in the spring, and she has matured into an accomplished and confident student during her first three years on campus.
But it wasn’t always that way for Bennett, a native of Miami, Florida. During her first semester on campus, Bennett felt lost, like “a small fish in a big sea.”
To make matters worse, as she was struggling to juggle classes with finding community and enjoying a social life on campus, Bennett recalls feeling overwhelmed and alone, not sure where to turn for guidance. Bennett, like many first-generation college students, didn’t think it was acceptable to reach out for help from her professors.
“In many first-generation households, we’re raised to believe that reaching out and asking for help is a bad thing. I often felt ashamed to reach out to my professor to set up a time to meet for office hours or to request a possible essay extension. But I came to learn that it is essential to reach out and ask for help if you need it. There are so many resources available to us in college,” says Bennett, who was selected as part of the inaugural cohort of Kessler Presidential Scholars, which provides first-generation students with four years of substantial scholarship aid along with access to services that enhance their time on campus.
Going Above and Beyond to Support First-Generation Students
On a campus with nearly 15,000 undergraduate students, Craig Tucker, director of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) works closely with many of Syracuse’s first-generation students. From the moment these students walk onto campus, Tucker and his staff make it their mission to establish a strong sense of belonging between these first-generation students and their new academic environment.
Of equal importance is decreasing the anxiety levels that students and their families face as their child embarks on their Syracuse University journey.
Craig Tucker, director of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program and TRIO Student Support Services works closely with many of Syracuse’s first-generation students, establishing a strong sense of belonging between these students and their new academic environment.
“The struggle often can be associated with students that are coming from marginalized, low-income and/or underrepresented backgrounds. There are cases where students may have a sense of guilt being in this environment where they have food and shelter while knowing that back home their families may be facing food insecurities and living in substandard housing. The challenges often are not academic in nature, but as a result of stresses and needs of the family back home, students may indeed end up struggling academically. I am so proud of our efforts here to support our students, but even more so those that come from the more challenging home environments. Syracuse University itself does its absolute best in going above and beyond to support the first-generation experience,” Tucker says.
As she approaches her final semester as an undergraduate student, Bennett is proud of the progress she’s made from someone who felt like an outsider when she came to campus to someone who now feels she belongs and found a home on campus.
Bennett credits the multitude of on-campus resources, including being a Kessler Presidential Scholar and belonging to registered student organizations like the Caribbean Student Association, Haitian-American Student Association and the African Student Union, among others, with aiding her growth and development.
“Moving away from home and studying here at Syracuse University has molded me into a more mature and responsible young woman who appreciates every opportunity she gets. I’m not afraid to reach out and ask for help. I learned not to wait for things to come to me, but to work to go get them. My time at SU has been one of the most challenging and trying yet rewarding times of my life. With every semester I reach a new level of maturity and growth. … I am grateful to have met a close-knit community of fellow minority and first-generation students who share stories similar to mine,” Bennett says.
Take Advantage of These Resources
Academically, first-generation students can benefit from these programs:
Learn More About How First-Generation Students Thrive on Campus
Later tonight, the University community is invited to a National First-Generation College Celebration, from 7-9 p.m. inside Watson Theater in Watson Hall. This event is celebrated annually on Nov. 8 to mark the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which provides equal opportunity for those from low-income and minority backgrounds through the creation of grant and loan programs, investments in institutions of higher education and the creation of the Federal TRIO Programs to facilitate the academic success of first-generation college students.
There will be a keynote speech and fireside chat and Q&A with Evingerlean D.B. Hudson, known as “Dr. Eve,” who has dedicated her career to empowering first-generation students by paving the way for social mobility and fighting against generational poverty. The night will close with a reception and giveaway items.
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