If you have been to the Cherry Street Market in the past week, chances are that you have probably seen the new poster featuring iconic faces such as Michelle Obama and personal stories about being the first in their family to go to college. This poster is one of the many initiatives that took place around Seattle University during the last week of January to celebrate First Generation Students Week.
“Higher education wasn’t made for first-gen students”, Gretchenrae Campera, the assistant director of student success & outreach, said. “It wasn’t made for a lot of people– it was made for white Christian men, cis men…the importance of doing the work now is that the system is still not made for first-gen students, so to be able to increase the visibility, acknowledge that they matter and that they are here [is important].”
The inherent difficulties associated with attending college are often magnified for first-generation students. The Postsecondary National Policy Institute found that only 11 percent of first-generation students are able to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 55 percent of students whose parents have received a college education.
Throughout the week, the Outreach Center hosted events to celebrate the presence of first-generation students on Seattle U’s campus. These events included a DIY mug decorating, a panel lead by first-gen faculty members, and celebratory posters throughout the second floor of the Student Center sharing first-gen student stories.
“I am personally a first-gen student,” Samantha Penjaraenwatana, a graduate student pursuing a masters in Student Development and Administration and the Graduate Coordinator for First Generation College Students Initiatives. “When I graduated from the University of Washington at Bothell, I didn’t have a first-gen community or a place to call my own. Coming to Seattle U [I felt] like this is a place that celebrates this identity. I think what’s most important is bringing this visibility that we aren’t alone, there are other first-gen students here, and celebrating it creates a community and more visibility.”
Penjaraenwatana coordinated this year’s First-Generation Students Week and is the organizer of First Gen Fridays. Every other Friday, firstgeneration students can participate in a community discussion surrounding topics that uniquely impact firstgeneration students. During First- Generation Students Week, the discussion topic was “Assumptions and Stereotypes.” Other themes are “Finding Our Voice & Sense of Belonging” and “Moving Forward With Our Voices.”
In particular, First Gen Fridays focus on changing the language used in discussions. Rather than focusing on the negative differences between first-generation students and their peers, positive language is reinforced through highlighting the successful characteristics shared amongst firstgeneration students.
“One of the goals of First Gen Fridays is to change from a deficit language to ‘we are resilient, resourceful, we can build community,’” Campera said. “I think that all of those things are very very true. I would say those about myself and also about the first gen students here at Seattle U. They are resourceful, resilient, and can embrace those positive characteristics about being the first. They are trailblazers. community builders, community organizers.”
One of the events that Penjaraenwatana advocated for was the inclusion of the “Failing Forward” Panel on Jan. 29. A panel discussion featuring faculty members Margaret Fielder, Gina Lopardo and more covered the importance of using failure to learn.
“What I really wanted was for firstgen students to see that failure is a part of our lives and that it is okay to fail,” Penjaraenwatana said. “I thought it would be really great to see staff members who have been in their positions and are now working at an institution and what failures they have [had that] shaped their careers and their lives and be resilient.”
Another one of the events during First-Generation Students Week encouraged students to answer the question “Why I’m First” on a poster. This is the only event that returned from last year’s inaugural First Generation Students Week.
Senior Criminal Justice and Psychology major Jennifer Bautista said that her first generation identity is two-fold in its impact on her academic experience.
“I think first-generation is an identity that can [make it] hard to navigate higher education, but it is also kind of a motivator for me. I see first-generation as trying to making my parents proud. Given that they never went to school, they came from Mexico to here, I’ve always kind-of known that I’m going to go to college even if we didn’t know how I was going to do that… It can be difficult sometimes, but I think with good support and a foundation, you can definitely navigate through the obstacles.”
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