Flying First

Flying First

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Program offers supports, resources to assist first-generation college students

Christian Rivera is the first in his family to attend college.

The enormity of that achievement isn’t lost on the senior radio/television/film major, who also was the first in his family to graduate from high school.

“I’m here so that I can bring a better life back to my family,” says Rivera. “There’s a sense of starting something for my own family, something I hold very dear.”

At Rowan University, Rivera, of Pennsville, isn’t alone in being a first-generation college student. In fact, more than 4,000 Rowan students are first-generation students, according to Penny McPherson Myers, associate vice president for Diversity and Organizational Effectiveness in the Division of Student Affairs.

“That’s more than we ever imagined,” says Myers, who co-leads Rowan’s First-Generation Task Force, organized last summer to examine the unique experiences of first-generation students and to offer services to support their academic journeys. “We want to better understand the challenges first-generation students face. Students in this population need to know they belong here.”

First-generation students are defined as students who are the first in their family to attend college or who are children of parents who attended college but did not finish. They also include students whose parents did not attend college in the United States or students who have had minimal exposure to higher education.

According to Myers, statistics show that an estimated 30 percent of the nation’s college students are the first in their family to attend college. However, first-generation students drop out of college at four times the rate of their peers whose parents attended college, Myers notes.

Research suggests that, without supports, first-generation students are more likely to feel left out and have trouble finding their place in college, Myers says. Additionally, they may struggle to navigate the culture of higher education and they often aren’t aware that professors expect students to seek extra help when they need it.

Moreover, Myers says, research shows that first-generation students often hesitate to take advantage of college resources, lack knowledge about selecting majors, securing internships or building resumes, and sometimes need reinforcement that they can succeed—and thrive--in academia.

Building a network

To highlight their strengths and bring attention to the campus community about ways to increase support for first-generation students, Rowan’s Flying First program was founded last fall in the Division of Student Affairs.

“The Flying First initiative was developed to help enhance academic success for our first-generation students,” says Myers, who co-leads the First-Generation Task Force with Amy Ruymann, associate director of University Advising Services.

“We’re building a network of proud students who have a unique path to college. First-generation students demonstrate resilience and self-motivation. They are some of the most hard-working students on campus. They are sources of support and inspiration to others. And they make indelible contributions to our campus community.

“With increased focus on first-generation students and support from the University community, our goal is to make significant increases to the retention and graduation rates of first-generation students at Rowan.”

In its first year, Flying First held welcoming events, workshops on applying for scholarships and balancing finances, career preparation sessions, and informational workshops focused on adjusting to college, managing stress, succeeding academically and becoming engaged with Rowan’s campus.

Flying First kicked off last fall with a panel discussion for the University community featuring students, faculty members and professional staff who are first-generation students. While the program offers supports and resources to students, it also provides information to faculty members about the unique challenges faced by the first-generation population.

“Flying First is an important next step in enhancing the culture of this campus,” says Rory McElwee, vice president for enrollment and student success and leader of Rowan’s Student Success Team. “We’re taking important steps to make sure our campus is fully welcoming and supportive to all students.”

“First-generation students have made a choice that is new in their family,” adds MaryBeth Walpole, chair of the Department of Educational Services and Leadership in the College of Education, where she researches issues of access and equity in higher education.

“They also often are intimidated by faculty and are not always sure how to approach them for assistance.”

‘Believe in yourself and take charge’

During an evening with Flying First students in the spring, Rowan President Ali Houshmand shared his own story as a first-generation student. Houshmand, who grew up in Iran as one of 10 children of parents who could not read or write, told students their experiences make them stronger--and more resilient.

“My parents were very poor. We didn’t have a series of good options in front of us. But I kept dreaming bigger,” says Houshmand, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics and mathematical statistics from the University of Essex, United Kingdom. He earned a second master’s degree and a doctoral degree in industrial and operations engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 

“If you really are determined and believe in yourself, you can do anything,” continued Houshmand, who established access to education as one of four pillars that serve as the University’s guiding principles.

“You never say, ‘This is not for me’ or ‘I can’t do that.’ The challenges you face are monumental. Believe in yourself and take charge. Your time will come.”

Rowan senior psychology major Maria Vasquez is taking that advice to heart. The daughter of Mexican immigrants who quit school as youngsters to assist their families, Vasquez is motivated, she says, by what her parents were not able to accomplish educationally.

“A lot of my motivation is because my mom always talked to me about how much she wanted to learn,” says Vasquez, who is trilingual, works as a resident assistant, and studied abroad in Rome her junior year.

“I’m doing this for myself, but also for them. My parents preached college to me. They wanted that for me.”

Flying First puts a much-needed support system in place for first-generation students, says Vasquez, of Freehold Borough.

A huge step

“We want Flying First students to see challenges as a blessing,” says Vasquez, who works with the program. “Getting into college is a huge step for first-generation students. The program helps get students and their family members on the same page. A lot of family members don’t understand what it means to go to a four-year school.”

As Flying First enters its second full academic year, programs are well in place to assist Rowan’s newest first-generation Profs. For the first time, four of the nine Orientation sessions this summer include evening receptions where first-generation students and their parents can meet with program leaders, students and faculty members to learn more about Flying First.

Additionally, the program throughout the year will include a welcome event, the second annual First-Generation Symposium, a scholarship workshop, observance of the National First-Generation College Celebration, and support programs and events during finals.

Like many first-generation students, Rivera says he had no one to talk to about college while he was growing up.

“I was flying blind,” he says. “At first, I didn’t look for resources at Rowan because I didn’t believe they existed.”

With Flying First, Rowan students have those supports—and faculty and administrators who are keenly aware of their challenges and dedicated to helping them succeed, says Rowan Provost James Newell, himself a first-generation college graduate.

“You came to a University where the president and the provost are first generation,” Newell told Flying First students last fall. “I was you. Is all of this worth it? The answer is yes.

“Don’t forget the family you will have in the future. You’re working for them, too. You’re fighting for future generations of your family.”