Role models, mentors, and allies are essential to the first-generation student experience
Four members of the Virginia Tech community offer their advice to first-generation students.
Lisa M. Lee knows first-hand the power of finding a mentor as a first-generation student. Lee is associate vice president for research and innovation and professor of public health in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
“I was a first-generation college student long before there was a name for students in my situation," Lee said. "When I stepped onto campus, there was no first-gen office or identity. I felt like I was always just a few steps behind my peers in figuring everything out. I was strong academically but did not know much about career options or even the various courses of study. During a required internship, I met a mentor who was doing work in public health, a field I’d never heard of, and she was kind enough to let me tag along on many of her interesting assignments. From there, I was hooked.
“It is important for students to see successful professionals — their professors, administrative staff, and university leaders — who are first-gen," Lee continued. "This helps students, like the one I was all those years ago, see a future for themselves.”
Nov. 8 marked First-Generation College Celebration Day. This annual recognition is a national day to acknowledge and elevate first-generation college student and alumni identities and contributions. Events listed on GobblerConnect marked the occasion.
In addition to highlighting the voices of first-generation students, Virginia Tech also celebrates the role models, mentors, and allies who enrich the first-generation experience.
Nina Ha, director of the Asian Cultural Engagement Center and secretary of the governor’s Virginia Asian Advisory Board, is an ally of first-generation students at Virginia Tech.
“For those who have never had family members in higher educational institutions, there is so much that is unknown until one is actually on the college or university campus," Ha said. "As someone who was a refugee and who has relatives and friends who were refugees or immigrants, I know the struggles of people who are trying to learn not only a new language, but also trying to acclimate to a new culture and environment.”
At Virginia Tech, a student is identified as first-generation if neither parent or guardian has earned a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university. There are 5,569 first-generation undergraduate students at Virginia Tech, 463 graduate students, 26 veterinary students, and two first-generation students pursuing doctorates in medicine. The total number of first-generation students at Virginia Tech is 6,060. More than 40 first-generation undergraduates live in the GenerationOne living-learning community.
Chatrice Barnes is director for faculty diversity and community engagement in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity and a first-generation graduate. “Being a first-generation college student can come with a lot of achievement pressure both from family and from within," she said. "You cannot do it all alone, and you shouldn’t have to do it all by yourself.”
Brett Shadle, professor of African history and chair of the Department of History, is also a first-generation graduate.
“First-gen students might feel pressure to excel in school to set a good example for younger siblings, in recognition of sacrifices made by their parents, to ultimately help their families financially or because it seems like the only path out of the constrained conditions in which they were raised. First-gen students sometimes feel that there is much more riding on a test or paper than a single grade. This is a point that faculty and staff should keep in mind when thinking about the particular stresses that some first-gen students face.”
These role models, mentors, and allies gave their best advice to first-generation students at Virginia Tech.
Lisa M. Lee
- "First-generation Hokies are incredibly fortunate to have amazing resources available on campus. Not only is there a strong and varied first-gen community, there are academic, social, and career resources created by first-gen graduates with the first-gen experience in mind."
- "The most important turning point in my career was the day I realized that as a first-gen student I brought unique strengths to the table. While I had always felt like I was a few yards behind the starting line, it finally dawned on me that because of that, I had some skills and abilities that others lacked. I was — and still am — a resourceful and resilient problem-solver. I am willing to persist and stay optimistic when things get difficult, and I appreciate the perspectives of people typically unheard. I often tell students that this reframing from a focus on my first-gen ‘deficits’ to what strengths I bring to the table was career changing."
- "First-gen students are their own best advocates. Don’t be afraid to speak out and seek help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness — it’s utilizing the vast number of resources that Virginia Tech offers."
- "Make sure to get to know your professors. Professors are valuable resources who may know about internships, job openings, graduate schools, and more."
- " I would encourage first-generation Hokies to get involved. There are over 800 registered student organizations on campus. Take advantage of all that Virginia Tech has to offer."
- "Virginia Tech provides assistance should students want to study abroad, which is amazing. Not enough students consider studying abroad and learning about other languages, cultures, and societies, even though many corporations are multinational and seek a diverse, culturally competent workforce."
- "Create your own definition of success. Know that just because you haven’t seen it before doesn’t mean it can’t be done first by you. You are first-gen after all."
- "It is OK if your first job out of college is not exactly the job you had in mind during college. It is likely that you will have a couple of seemingly random jobs at the start of your career that might not seem as related to your major as you want them to be. Rest assured that you will have amassed an entire collection of transferrable skills that will be desirable to employers in all types of jobs and fields."
- "Recognize that first-generation students, like any student with salient marginalized identities, have an impressive level of grit and resilience that should be seen as an asset."
- "Get to know students from outside your major and current class standing. My peer mentors were the most influential part of my college journey. There are so many people at Virginia Tech who want to help you succeed, so be sure to frequent the offices from which you need support."
- "Talk to your professors. Talk in class, talk to them before and after class, go to their office hours. For every student at VT, there is at least one professor who will get you. There is at least one professor who will see something in you that perhaps no one else does, not even you. This is advice I’d give to all students, but particularly to first-gen students who sometimes need an ally to have their back, offer advice, and just listen. I was encouraged by several professors I got to know outside of the classroom. They had confidence in my ability, helped me find work opportunities, supported me in applying for scholarships and for graduate school."
In honor of national First-Generation College Celebration Day, Student Affairs has launched a crowdfunding campaign to support Virginia Tech’s first-generation students. With a goal of $4,000, the campaign supports personal and professional development, student organization involvement, internships, research, and study abroad for first-generation students. The campaign runs through Nov. 15.
“Allies are incredibly important to the first-generation community,” said Lee. “People with power and proximity to power must be willing to take a chance on a first-gen student. They must help level the playing field for students who do not have the social capital that students with college-educated parents possess. I would argue that it is the obligation of all of us in higher education to create these types of opportunities and facilitate these types of connections for first-gen students.”
For more information on how you can help first-generation students at Virginia Tech or to be added to the faculty, staff, and ally listserv, contact Tamara Cherry-Clarke, assistant dean for First-Generation Student Support and GenerationOne program director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-231-0751.