The transition to college can be bumpy for any student, but especially those in the first generation of their family to attend a university.
Students take rigorous classes while adjusting to living on their own, navigate financial aid and class registration and sometimes hold down a part-time job — all without a built-in support system that many take for granted.
“The challenge with being first-generation is that I had no idea what college would be like, and I couldn’t ask my parents what it was like for them,” said Kierra Valdez-McClure, a freshman at USC. “They never went to college or lived on campus in a residence hall. I really didn’t know what to expect. I was so stressed.”
To ease that stress, USC now offers a new series of first-generation college student programs for both incoming freshmen and transfer students. The seminars, titled First-Generation Success Workshops, provide personalized attention and guidance to help first-generation students access services, said Jessica Frey, director of student development programs in USC’s Division of Enrollment Services.
“We do have a lot of resources, but at such a big school, it often seems like it is up to the student to be proactive about utilizing resources, getting involved, finding their community and asking for help,” she said. “I’ve heard from many students about this sense of fear that they are the only ones feeling this way — that they feel they aren’t ready or they are the only ones having a challenging experience.”
The new workshops reduce that perception by highlighting the many support services provided for incoming students and ensuring that asking for help isn’t viewed as a sign of weakness, she said. Participants also hear from current first-gen students at USC about their experiences adjusting to college life and how to avoid common pitfalls.
“It’s one thing to be told, ‘This is what to expect,’” Frey said. “It’s another thing to be in it. We want to help these students while they are living and breathing in this new experience.”
New first-generation college student programs promote study and social skills
Attendees receive guidance with academic planning, getting involved with campus groups, finding career-boosting internships and connecting with other first-gen students. The university is testing the new workshops with 65 students this year. If they prove popular, Frey said the program could be expanded to accommodate the large population of first-gen scholars at USC.
It’s a group that has more than doubled in size in the past few decades. First-generation students now account for 1 in 5 undergraduates, along with more than 7,000 graduate students. And although they might face unique challenges, Frey said they also bring strengths like determination and adaptability.
“I’ve met a lot of first-generation students who are used to being advocates for themselves — standing up for themselves, looking out for what they need,” she said. “They are definitely resilient and have a strong work ethic.”
Those qualities certainly apply to Valdez-McClure. She describes herself as goal oriented, and she is committed to maintaining strong grades at USC. The Orange, Calif., native is studying health promotion and disease prevention with plans to attend medical school. She said the new workshop series gives her confidence that she will have access to the tools she needs to achieve her academic and career goals.
“USC is really community-based and wants to help us,” Valdez-McClure said. “If I need it, they will give me resources to put me on the right path to succeed.”
Learning about USC resources
During the first workshop in the new series, students learned about academic support services provided by the USC Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity. The center offers academic coaching, workshops and consultations on topics like time management and study skills.
Attendees also discussed how to plan out their semester, including developing a calendar system to ensure they complete assignments on time and are ready for exams.
Hieu Nguyen said he found it useful to receive guidance on completing classes required for his interdisciplinary major in physics and computer science. A native of Vietnam, he transferred to USC after two years at a community college in Chicago. He said it can be challenging to track down information about course requirements, so he is glad to see the university providing more outreach and guidance to first-gen students.
“There are a lot of resources that can help me, I just have to find them,” said Nguyen, who added “I’m interested in connecting with someone, finding a mentor to get information on how to finish my major.”
During the new workshops, staff members and student workers from the Division of Enrollment Services are stationed throughout the room and available to assist students with specific questions. Many already participated in specialized orientation sessions over the summer for incoming first-gen freshmen.
Mia Esquivel is one of those student workers, and she knows all about the challenges faced by first-generation students. As the first member of her family to attend a four-year college, she said it was tricky to navigate the application and financial aid process with her parents.
“We kind of just had to figure that out together,” she said. “My parents didn’t know too much about that process, so it was definitely a learning experience.”
Now that she has settled in at USC, as a sophomore studying psychology, she is excited to be involved with orientation and first-gen support services to help incoming classmates.
“Tiny issues can make a big different in how stressed out you might be,” Esquivel said. “If I can just help a little bit, be a mentor or just be there for someone to ask questions, I want to do that.”
Workshops complement other services
These new workshops are part of a broader slate of first-generation student resources provided at USC, including a mentor program and an annual summit for first-gen students. The university’s student body also offers scholarships geared toward first-gen students and those from the neighborhoods surrounding USC through the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund.
The increasing emphasis on providing support to first-gen students is encouraging to Victoria Nunez, who transferred to USC this year from Santa Monica City College to study communication. She said it can be difficult to build connections with fellow students, so she is looking forward to an upcoming workshop on getting involved with student groups and accessing other services at the USC Career Center.
“Networking can be challenging,” Nunez said. “Coming in and not knowing anybody makes it a little harder. That’s why events like these are so important. I’m looking for guidance to help me find out more about resources on campus and organizations to join.”