For many first-generation college students, the path from their first day on campus to graduation presents them with a challenging uphill journey. National statistics suggest that first-generation students graduate at a significantly lower rate than their non-first-generation peers. A 2011 study by the higher education research institute at UCLA showed that after four years at a college or university in the United States, only 27.4 percent of first-generation students had earned a degree, compared with 42.1 percent of students from families where at least one parent has a college degree.

“Everyone became a Hokie overnight. Even my dog has a little VT sweater now!”

That’s how Ellie Mangan described the reaction her family had when she received her offer of acceptance from Virginia Tech.

In August, Mangan began her first semester as a college student. It’s an exciting and intimidating moment for any student, but for Mangan, it has an additional significance: It’s the beginning of her journey to become the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

That distinction places her among thousands of fellow “first-generation” Hokies—students for whom neither of their parents or guardians have four-year degrees from a college or university.

Mangan’s journey toward higher education began long before she applied to Virginia Tech. “My whole life, we lived near this community college,” she said, “and when my mom and I would drive past it, I would tell her, ‘I want to go to college.’”

Ellie Mangan

"Everyone became a Hokie overnight. Even my dog has a little VT sweater now!”
Ellie Mangan

Mangan is one of more than 5,200 first-generation undergraduate students enrolled at Virginia Tech this semester. Together, they comprise about 17.5 percent of the overall undergraduate student body, according to the latest data available from the Office of Analytics and Institutional Effectiveness, up from 15 percent in 2018.

A number of barriers, including less access to financial resources and a lack of support in navigating the world of higher education, place additional burdens on first-generation students compared to students with degree-holding parents or guardians.

A slate of innovative programs at Virginia Tech is aimed at helping ease those burdens. With the generous philanthropic support of first-generation alumna Paula Robichaud ’77, the Office of First-Generation Student Support, along with a variety of other initiatives and departments throughout the university, is working to ensure that first-generation students get the resources and support they need to thrive at Virginia Tech.

Robichaud’s gift in 2019 made it possible for the university to launch a first-generation student initiative and conduct a national search for a director to oversee first-generation programming.

“I want to pay it forward by supporting Virginia Tech students who, in turn, will make opportunities possible for those who follow them,” Robichaud said. “Everybody should have a chance at a good education, to see what they can do with it. Isn’t that the American dream? We are all in this together. It’s as simple as that.”

The effort is proving effective. First-generation Hokies in the Class of 2021 remained enrolled at the university at close to the same rate as their classmates from degree-holding families—85 percent compared to 88.5 percent of non-first-generation students.Tamara Cherry-Clarke, who was a first-generation college student, took over in July as assistant dean of students for first-generation student support and program director for the GenerationOne living-learning community.

“It’s really about connecting and supporting first-generation students as early as possible,” Cherry-Clarke said. “That’s why it’s so important for this community to be identified and to have resources that meet their needs. Having that support can be the difference between successfully completing their degrees or not.”

Cherry-Clarke, who has been working to help first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students succeed in higher education for more than a decade, said that she values seeing the students she works with develop the skills and confidence they need to achieve their academic and career goals.

“I love being a part of that journey,” Cherry-Clarke said. “I have former mentees from all of my previous institutions that stay in touch to let me know they’re doing well. One of them just gave my son his COVID vaccine. It’s great to see them continuing along their journeys.”

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I always knew that, if I completed college, I would be the first person in my family to do so, but Upward Bound introduced me to the term ‘first-generation student.’ It helped me understand what to expect when I got here.
Christine Strouth

What to Expect

Christine Strouth, a senior studying psychology, has come a long way since the beginning of her college career.

“Going into college, it was hard to talk to people at first, and I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing,” the native of Virginia’s Dickenson County said. “My biggest hesitancy with coming to Virginia Tech was that I was going to be jumping into the dark. I was really nervous about not being able to succeed.”

Strouth’s parents encouraged her to apply for college despite financial limitations and a lack of first-hand knowledge of the process. She applied to five universities and was accepted to all of them, but was left with even more questions.

Strouth credits a special program she participated in while in high school with making her more ready for college.

“Each summer, I would go to the campus of a college near our home for a pre-college program called Upward Bound,” she said. “We got to know the campus, took some classes, and learned about applying to college. They could answer questions about financial aid and applying for fee waivers.

“I always knew that, if I completed college, I would be the first person in my family to do so,” Strouth continued, “but Upward Bound introduced me to the term ‘first-generation student.’ It helped me understand what to expect when I got here.”

Upward Bound is part of TRIO, a group of student services and outreach programs administered and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It aims to help high school students overcome social, academic, and cultural barriers to higher education.

Throughout the country, hundreds of college campuses now host TRIO programs like Upward Bound on their campuses each summer with funding awarded by the federal government. Virginia Tech has worked with the programs since their very beginning more than 50 years ago.

“The Upward Bound and Talent Search programs in Southwest Virginia are two of the oldest such programs in the nation, going back to the beginning of TRIO in the 1960s,” said Frances Clark, the university’s director of TRIO programs. “Maintaining funding and continuity that long is fairly unique.”

Virginia Tech’s three Upward Bound programs—which include a regional program for Southwest Virginia as well as programs for Salem and Roanoke City—collectively serve more than 200 high school students each year. All participants come from families who fall within specific income guidelines, and two-thirds of those served must meet the criteria to be considered first-generation students when they eventually enroll in a college or university.

Traditionally, a major component of the Upward Bound experience at Virginia Tech has been a six-week, on-campus, intensive summer program aimed at getting students ready for college. Participants ranging in age from rising ninth-graders to rising first-year college students live in dorms, receive crucial support applying to schools and for financial aid and scholarships, and take cross-curricular and project-based classes focused on core subjects needed for academic success in higher education, among a variety of other activities.

Students who participate in Upward Bound at Virginia Tech are under no obligation to apply to the university, though Clark said that many ultimately choose to because of the familiarity and affection they develop for it. According to Clark, 83 percent of Upward Bound participants go on to enroll in post-secondary education, compared with 51 percent of students who do not participate but meet the eligibility criteria.

In addition to the summer residential program, all students participating in TRIO programs at Virginia Tech are eligible for tutoring and academic advising.

“We want our students to see college as a viable option and to feel that they have the tools they need to succeed,” said Jason Puryear, the university’s associate director of Upward Bound programs. “Because many of our tutors are first-generation students, they can talk to students in Upward Bound about their own experiences and help fill in the gaps of what it’s like to be a college student.”

Strouth, who has gone on to serve as a mentor to other first-generation Hokies, urges them to remember that they’re not alone at Virginia Tech. “It’s okay to be aware of feeling out of place,” she said. “But remember, just because your parents didn’t go to college doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to.”

A group of first-generation students

We want our students to see college as a viable option and to feel that they have the tools they need to succeed there. Because many of our tutors are first-generation students, they can talk to students in Upward Bound about their own experiences and help fill in the gaps of what it's like to be a college student.
-Jason Puryear
Associate Director of Upward Bound Programs at Virginia Tech

Not Alone Here

Once they arrive on campus for their first semester of classes, first-generation students are faced with an array of new barriers they must overcome as they try to gain their academic and social footing at the university. Chief among them: learning to navigate the world of higher education.

One approach to bridging this gap is a new effort to create a space on campus for first-generation students to find the answers to these questions together, with guidance from faculty drawing on a mix of expert knowledge and personal experience.

GenerationOne, the university’s newest living-learning community, welcomed its initial cohort to Pritchard Hall this fall.

Students participating in GenerationOne are paired with a mentor who is a first-generation junior or senior and can answer questions and share insights from their own experiences navigating the university. GenerationOne peer mentoring will build on the success of the Hokies First peer-mentoring program, a project of the Dean of Students Office.

“Mentors are essential,” Cherry-Clarke said. “They are the GPS for their mentees, helping to chart the course for success and recovering from wrong turns and dead ends. It’s important for new first-generation students to get to know upperclassmen they can see themselves in, who can serve as examples of the success they themselves can have.”

Shashank Gupta, a senior studying computational modeling and data analytics, works with the community as a mentor for firstand second-year students. “The system here is so different from the way things work in high school or in universities in other countries,” Gupta said. “I want to try to help them not make the same mistakes I did.”

Through both one-on-one and group sessions, mentors like Gupta use the lessons they have learned as first-generation Hokies to help guide their mentees as they decide about their courses, navigate administrative hurdles, and make their way toward graduation and beyond.

“I try to help them think about life after college, too,” said Gupta. “Things like the cost of living, where they want to be, just life stuff beyond being a college student.”

First-generation students living in GenerationOne participate in weekly community nights, during which an invited speaker shares tips and strategies for college success. As a group, they also take History of the First-Generation Identity, a one-credit course on the historical contributions of first-generation college students and the ways that higher education has historically intersected with race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity.

“We wanted to make this course something students could do to understand their own place in the university and explore what it means to be a first-generation student,” said Professor Brett Shadle, the chair of the Department of History. He teaches this new course in collaboration with Associate Professor Dennis Halpin, the department’s associate chair. Both were first-generation students themselves.

In a recent class session, Shadle and the students discussed the social and legal changes that lead to increased inclusion of students in higher education who had previously been excluded on the basis of their race, class, or gender. These societal shifts in turn transformed colleges and universities, especially as students demanded that their courses reflect the perspectives, writings, and discoveries of a greater diversity of scholars and researchers.

Following the lecture, two of the community’s peer mentors, Mimi Rainey and Xayca Solano, led the students in a Jeopardy-style competition and discussion about the importance of including the voices and experiences of different groups of people into fields like history, and at what stage in their academic journeys students should first be exposed to these fuller, more accurate and representative historical narratives.

“In this way,” Shadle said, “we linked how the inclusion of first-generation students from a wide variety of backgrounds, just like the students in this class, helped transform higher education in terms of both teaching and education, and how that knowledge can be incorporated throughout our educational system.”

The GenerationOne living-learning community has been made possible by the expertise, hard work, and dedication of a passionate team of professionals like Cherry-Clarke, teaching-and-research faculty like Shadle and Halpin, and even a number of first-generation students themselves.

As members of the community’s steering committee, first-generation Hokies Elizabeth Owusu ’22 and Christina Ju ’21 helped shape what the GenerationOne experience will look like.

Owusu is a senior pursuing a double major in sociology and political science. After finishing her degree, she hopes to go on to study civil rights law.

Owusu chose to come to Virginia Tech because she felt it would offer her the best opportunity to make connections that would help her in her professional life. “I was really excited to be a part of the social and professional world of Virginia Tech,” she said.

Owusu also reflected on what it was like to discuss her experiences at college with her family.

“It’s challenging sometimes to explain aspects of the college culture to my parents,” she said. “I remember struggling to get them to understand what a class ring is and why the design of it being revealed mattered. Those traditions are just not something they have experience with.

“I definitely want to make sure students embrace their first-generation identity,” Owusu added. “I want them to know that there are resources here that are meant for them.”

Ju, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s in psychology, said her parents emphasized education from an early age.

“They really understand the difficulty that comes with not having a degree, and they wanted me to have the sense of security and stability that graduating from college would help me achieve,” Ju said.

She chose Virginia Tech because she had a cousin who was already enrolled and knew several other people from her high school who were planning to attend.

“I didn’t really know much about what college life was supposed to be like,” Ju recalled. “Other people I knew grew up in families with connections to universities, they went to Virginia Tech football games and things like that. My family didn’t do that, so I didn’t really know what college culture was like.”

This fall, Ju began a Ph.D. program in industrial-organizational psychology at Old Dominion University.

“When I first got to Virginia Tech, I didn’t really identify as a ‘first-generation student,’ and because of that, I wasn’t able to seek out resources that could have helped me,” she said. “I wanted to provide input on GenerationOne to help new students recognize their own first-generation identity and help them realize they’re not alone here.”

Tamara Cherry-Clarke, Assistant Dean for First Generation Student Success and Program Director for the newly formed GenerationOne Living-Learning Community

I don’t want you to struggle alone or to navigate those challenges alone.

- Tamara Cherry-Clarke
Assistant Dean of Students for First-Generation Student Support and Program Director for the Generation One Living-Learning Community

Tight-Knit Community

On a warm Tuesday evening in September, the student residents of GenerationOne gathered in a common area of Pritchard Hall for their weekly community night. A large group of first-generation Hokies, some of them wearing “I Am First-Gen” T-shirts, took seats facing a projector screen.

The evening opened with community updates from Cherry-Clarke, the living-learning community’s program director. She shared tips on time management, organization, and preparing for class, skills she referred to as part of a transition to “college-level expectations.”

Cherry-Clarke also urged students who might find themselves struggling—be it with physical health, mental health, finances, or anything else—to get in touch with her, the Dean of Students office, or Schiffert Health Center for support. “I don’t want you to struggle alone or to navigate those challenges alone,” she reminded them.

Cherry-Clarke’s remarks were followed by a presentation on reading and note-taking strategies provided by the Student Success Center. Students shared some challenges they had encountered in their time so far at the university completing assigned readings for their classes, and the presenters outlined a strategy to help students better retain information from assigned readings.

After the evening’s scheduled programming came to a close, many of the students remained in the common area, chatting and reflecting on the ways in which their first few weeks of college compared with their expectations.

Christopher Tutt, a GenerationOne resident, came to Virginia Tech after previously earning an associate’s degree. He’s now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with minors in Asian studies and classical studies.

“It was harder to make friends there,” said Tutt, describing his experience in community college. “Most people didn’t hang around much after classes. Now, living in this dorm, I’m constantly running into people I know around campus. It’s a much more active lifestyle; there’s always something going on. We’ve been here only a few weeks, but it feels like it’s been years.”

Two first-year students, Henry Barrera and Tyler Myers, agreed that one of the things they like best about living in GenerationOne is the way it has enabled them to quickly develop a supportive community of new friends who share the experience of being first-generation students. “It’s nice that we all have something in common,” Barrera said, “and everyone here is pretty open.”

“I see a lot of other students walking around campus by themselves with their headphones on,” said Myers, “but with us, it’s like, if you see one of us, you see five of us. It’s a really inclusive group.”

That group also includes Mangan, who is now well into her first semester. Surrounded by her new friends in GenerationOne, she reflected on the ways in which her first few weeks of college life had—and had not—conformed to her expectations.

“Overall, I’m really surprised how well I’ve been navigating things,” Mangan said. “I was nervous I’d be lost all the time, but I’ve been able to get food and get to class on time and all of that.”

Mangan had attended her first Hokie football game, the team’s home opener against the University of North Carolina, that weekend. “It was very exciting,” she said, “It was pretty much exactly what everyone said it would be like. I can’t wait to go again!”

Mangan, who is pursuing a degree in business information and technology, said she is responding well to the transition to college-level coursework. “It’s nice to start learning more in-depth about the topics I’m interested in,” she said, citing Foundations of Business, a First-Year Experience course in the Pamplin College of Business, as her favorite so far.

As for her experience in GenerationOne, the decision to join the living-learning community seems to be paying off for Mangan. “I’m definitely making some friends,” she said. “A lot of times we’re all hanging out here in the lounge playing ping pong or foosball, or a group of us go for lunch together. It’s a pretty tight-knit community.”

Each of the students in GenerationOne will face an array of challenges, some common to many first-generation students and some unique to them, as they work toward earning their degrees. But with the support of Virginia Tech faculty and staff, their mentors, their families, and their fellow first-generation Hokies, they’ll also have some powerful resources helping them succeed in pursuing their goals.

“I’m actually not as homesick as I thought I would be,” Mangan reflected. “My parents Facetime me a lot, and they were able to come for my birthday, which was nice. Mostly they just seem really happy that I’m doing so well.”

Virginia Tech first generation students pose for a group photo

I always knew that, if I completed college, I would be the first person in my family to do so, but Upward Bound introduced me to the term ‘first-generation student.’ It helped me understand what to expect when I got here.
-Christine Strouth

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