University freshman class sees influx of first-generation students

College of Media senior Rachel Loyd has a photo from her move-in day freshman year, showing she and her mother smiling as she was dropped off for school.

Upon closer look, her mother has tears in her eyes, overwhelmed with emotion over her daughter   — the youngest of three — beginning college. Rachel is the first in her family to do so.

“(My mother) didn’t have the opportunity to go to college and so her youngest daughter (going) to college and attempting to make something out of herself was really overwhelming for her,” Loyd said. “She was just ecstatic.”

Loyd is a first-generation college student, or a student whose parents did not graduate from a four-year institution.

According to data provided by campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler, this year’s freshman class has a higher percentage of first-generation students than all other classes. About 23 percent of all students with freshmen standing, including first-time, transfer, returning and continuing freshmen, are first-generation students.

In both applying to the University and attending college, first-generation students face challenges not faced by students whose families have a tradition of higher education, officials said.

First-generation students identify themselves as such when they fill out their applications to the University, said Director of Admissions Stacey Kostell. This information is then taken into account when reviewing the application, she said.

“There are a number of personal characteristics that we take into consideration when we’re reviewing an application,” Kostell said. “We know that a student who is a first-generation student (is) kind of navigating the college selection process and the application process from maybe a different perspective from a student who has parents who have gone to college.”

To help target potential first-generation applicants, representatives from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions visit high schools with large first-generation student populations and holds special programs and application workshops. They talk to students about what the University looks for in essays, activities, test scores and advanced courses, Kostell said.

“It’s always helpful to have access to students as early as possible to engage and just have that … conversation that college is possible,” she said.

Though she does not come from a tradition of higher education, Loyd remembers her mother offering support for her education at a young age.

“I remember hearing all throughout elementary school and middle school my mom would always say, ‘Oh Rachel’s going to college’ because she knew that I was serious about my education,” Loyd said.

Although she was a serious student, Loyd said she didn’t think about college seriously until her senior year of high school. But once she made the decision to go, she ran into the problem of how to pay for school.

It was not until the summer before starting her freshman year that she learned she had been accepted to the Illinois Promise scholarship program. This scholarship covers the full cost of education for students whose families live below the poverty level and have net assets below $50,000. Students accepted in the program must be Illinois residents and incoming freshmen or transfer students; they must also have an expected family contribution of zero on their FAFSA.

It is not a scholarship requirement to be a first-generation student, but about 70 percent of the recipients are, said Susan Gershenfeld, director of Illinois Promise.

This program provides more than just financial support, Gershenfeld said. It also offers its students mentoring programs, professional development and community building.

Gershenfeld said when first-generation students enter the University, they do not always know the ins and outs of the University system.

“For many of our students, many of them are first-generation and parents can’t really help, you just sort of fit in and try to absorb things through osmosis because you might be afraid to ask things and you just want to fit in,” Gershenfeld said.

Because the culture and terms used in a college setting are sometimes foreign to first-generation students, some struggle is known as cultural competency, she said.

“There are the kind of barriers that all students would experience but I think that for a first-generation (student) you’re entering a different culture,” Gershenfeld said. “As students ask questions and they feel comfortable you get over it, but you just have a little bit of a slower start but you can certainly catch up.”

Not having parents to turn to for advice about academics at the University is also a challenge, Loyd said — one she experienced first hand.

After her freshman year, Loyd wanted to transfer from the College of Education to the College of Media but was unable to register for classes because of a lock on her account due to a scheduling problem. She was concerned that she would lose financial aid if she didn’t register for classes.

“I got so worried and so distraught and I called my mom and she said, ‘Honey I don’t know what to tell you,’” Loyd said. “I felt really lost because I didn’t know who to go to.”

Although Loyd said her mother wanted to help, she had no advice to give. But through Illinois Promise, Loyd contacted Gershenfeld, who was able to help her and fixed her account so that she was able to schedule for classes by the end of the day.

“She was there for moral support because she calmed me down, but she was also there to make things happen,” Loyd said.

Making first-generation students, specifically within the Illinois Promise program, feel comfortable at the university is important, Gershfeld said. By offering extra support, she hopes that students will feel more comfortable in their place within the University.

“We try so hard to show that you belong here and that people care about you … I always say that it makes my day to meet a new I-Promise student,” Gershenfeld said. “I love hearing their stories, I love hearing what their hopes are and trying to help them overcome challenges that they have. It’s just (about) being accessible and being human in this big place (and showing) that there are people that care.”

Miranda can be reached at [email protected]