Tips for First-Gen College Students: Part II
The Biggest Piece of Advice? Don’t be Shy About Asking for Help
We sat down with a group of staff and faculty from Wentworth Institute of Technology to talk about first-generation college students. In Part I, we discussed firsthand experiences and what members of the group did to ultimately thrive in college. In Part II, we go further into the role money might play and who a first-gen student should go to for help.
Greg Abazorius, Director of Content:
Are finances the number one obstacle for first-generation students?
Carlo Fierimonte, Associate Director, Admissions:
It’s definitely an obstacle, especially when deciding if you can live on campus or not. A lot of students would love to leave the nest, but—because of finances—they might instead commute to the school that’s a 15-minute drive or bus ride away. Of course, there’s also data that shows living on campus helps a student do better academically and that can be hard for a student who doesn’t believe they can afford it. But, again, it come down to asking for help. Always ask about scholarships and loans and other opportunities. The worst a school can say is “no.”
Fierimonte urges first-gen students, despite any initial costs, to look for schools that have co-ops and other programs that can help quickly recoup money through a high-value job after graduation.
It can be sometimes hard to see the big picture when you're applying to schools, but I think students who come to Wentworth are getting a practical experience that applies well to the workforce, and they can get jobs a lot sooner than students from other schools.
Ella Howard reiterates the need to ask for financial help.
Ella Howard, Associate Professor, School of Sciences & Humanities:
There is a pervasive cultural sense we have because of the student loan crisis where student loans are often demonized. When I worked at a public school in Georgia, we would often see students not take out any loans because of this sense of pride. They’d work full-time and then come to me when they could not keep up in class.
Howard notes that the issue is not as ubiquitous at the Institute, but that there are plenty of students who work full time while taking a spate of classes. Difficult conversations often materialize during her advising hours.
My two o'clock (appointment) is just as smart and just as gifted as my three o'clock. But when you talk to them about the details of their life, if one student is working 40 hours a week at the supermarket, then they're tired and they’re not going to be able to succeed on the same level academically. I want to be respectful of people's privacy, but at the same time, I want students to succeed.
Howard says to be as open as you can be about the work you’re doing outside of school and whether it might be taking a toll on studies. Faculty and staff will then work with the student and talk about ways they might be able to cut back work hours, even if it’s temporary, as well as resources available to help.
Tiffany Amoakohene appreciates that broaching such a conversation is not easy. As a student, she felt embarrassed to talk even to peers about any financial struggles.
Tiffany Amoakohene, Special Projects Coordinator, Office of the Provost:
It was this unspoken thing where you just didn’t have those conversations. And I know I missed out on opportunities because I didn’t ask questions.
Wentworth and other schools provide a “Financial FAQ” resource with acceptance packets, and financial aid and scholarship information can be found on Wentworth's website. When students request a financial aid package, it arrives with a breakdown of everything they could incur, including direct costs and indirect costs, as well as links to videos and other informational tools. Colleges cannot, however, legally make specific recommendations for certain loans. Students have to do their own research on those matters.
One of the things that I think first-gen students don't know is that financial aid packages are negotiable. It's the classic first-gen thing. You think sticker prices are final. I can't imagine sitting there, looking at your roommate whose family has more money than you, but they knew to go back to the table to negotiate and you didn’t.
And I think starting in high school that counselors and teachers need to start empowering the students to speak up for themselves. Don’t just let your family do it. Once you’re 18, once you’re in college, you’ll have to do it on your own.
Fiermonte and Amoakohene both believe that identifying oneself as a first-gen student and joining any groups tailored to the first-gen experience can make a dramatic difference.
I think there are a lot of misconceptions with first-gen students. A lot of people feel it must mean low income or they're not academically prepared or they're from a minority racial or ethnic background. The reality is that you might be working with a first-gen student and not even know it.
That term (first-gen) has existed for decades, but in terms of it being an entity, that did not exist when I was a student. If it had, the experience would have been so different.
Peter Fowler, Associate Dean of Students:
I think it might be helpful to approach every student as if they were a first-gen student. If educators provide certain information to everyone, then we’ll have less students fall through the gaps in general. That being said, I do think we also have to pay attention to how being a first-gen student may impact specific students based upon their experience with their identities. So a first-gen student with a disability, for example, is not necessarily going to know that the accommodation process in higher education is very, very different than it was in K-12.
Fowler also notes that there are sometimes students who don’t ask questions (particularly in public setting) in an effort to avoid stereotypes associated with their identities, even though their question might be rooted in something that is very specific to a first-generation experience.
Any other advice that you want to offer?
Find your person. Whether it’s a professor or a work study supervisor or the resident director in your building. Someone you connect with. Or get involved so you can meet faculty and staff as a club advisor.
A lot of students don't want to ask for help or admit that they're struggling. I always tell students, it's like a gym membership and you're paying for someone else to benefit from that personal trainer. Right now, you’re paying someone to sit at a table and help someone else with their math homework, unless you get in there and take advantage of those services.
I'm a big proponent of networking. We have CO-OPS & CAREERS at Wentworth. And pretty much all schools in higher ed. have some sort of career services, but what are those other avenues? How do I get in touch with alumni? How do I use LinkedIn? These are questions I would ask.
And generally, I think students should go to professors, look up office hours, ask the faculty questions. It is our job.
I am a big fan of getting an on-campus job. I know that that's not possible for everyone, but that's what helped me the most, working less at an outside job I had, working a little bit more on campus, meeting other students, meeting other staff. As Peter mentioned, finding my people—people I really could connect with—is what kept me at school.
This multi-part feature is part of a series entitled "Candid Conversations," roundtable discussions hosted by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in collaboration with the Marketing and Communications Department. Each will focus on a topic connected to diversity, equity and/or inclusion.