Photo caption: At UW-Eau Claire, 25% of incoming freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, and 28% of all Blugolds on campus are first-generation students. (Photo by Shane Opatz)
The decision to attend college is a reason to celebrate, especially for students who are the first in their families to seek a university degree.
The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is joining other universities around the country to recognize those students on Monday, Nov. 8, during National First-Generation College Celebration Day. The day commemorates the Higher Education Act of 1965, which included initiatives for low-income and first-generation college students.
A first-generation college student comes from a family where a student’s parents did not receive a four-year degree.
“Students who go first enter new and uncharted waters, and there is a courage that this requires,” says Quincy Chapman, UW-Eau Claire’s director of Housing and Residence Life, and an organizer of the celebration. “We celebrate the risk-taking and the commitment to a new and expansive future that our first-generation students have made.”
At UW-Eau Claire, 25% of incoming freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, and 28% of all Blugolds on campus are first-generation students.
“When students look around campus, they see others who seem to know what we call the ‘hidden curriculum’ — who to see to get help, how to navigate the bureaucracy of large institutions, how to access networks for employment and internships,” Chapman says. “This knowledge is passed down in families that have attended college in the past, but can also be passed on from networks of those who had the same experience and who students can relate to.”
In his role overseeing UW-Eau Claire’s residence halls, Chapman sees the struggles faced by first-generation students.
“Some of the examples of ‘hidden curriculum’ that we see in residence hall living include students not knowing how important it is to remain on campus the first several weekends to build social networks even when the hometown is calling,” Chapman says. “They need to learn how to keep going back to offices to ask for help, which requires admitting you don’t know the answer. A lot of our students assume they are the only ones who are having this same experience, but over a quarter of our students are feeling the way they are at any given moment.”
Billy Felz, UW-Eau Claire’s interim vice chancellor for enrollment management, was one of eight children in his family with parents who believed their offspring should be able to support themselves after high school. As a first-generation college graduate, Felz recalls feeling the stress, uncertainty and pressure to “figure it out” on his own.
“As a first-generation student, it felt very 'sink or swim for me,' especially in my first year of college,” Felz says. “There were so many new things to navigate socially, emotionally and even transactionally — Who is this academic advisor? Why do I have to meet with them? Am I in trouble? I wasn’t sure what resources were available to me and I didn’t think it was socially acceptable (cool) to look for help or take advantage of it. I was paying for all of my education and living expenses.”
UW-Eau Claire’s faculty and staff work hard to highlight resources, provide support and make personal connections with first-generation Blugolds, Felz says.
“We need to continue excelling at that — specifically letting our first-generation students know that college will be challenging, there will be times that they fail and it is perfectly acceptable to seek help when needed,” Felz says. “I didn’t have that until later in my college career, and it would have made all the difference in the world as I dealt with my first year of stress and uncertainty.”
UW-Eau Claire will host multiple on-campus activities on Nov. 8 to celebrate first-generation students, including the following events:
- Participating faculty and staff who were the first in their families to graduate from college will wear T-shirts celebrating the day and will talk about their experiences as first-generation college students, touching on topics like the “hidden curriculum” and other obstacles.
- UW-Eau Claire students who are first-generation students are invited to record video testimonials from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at a table in Davies Center. Students will receive a T-shirt celebrating the day and their experiences.
- The celebration will recognize UW-Eau Claire’s First-Generation Professional Network of students, faculty, staff and alumni who can provide future opportunities for first-generation students to be supported on their college journey.