How UCA Supports First-Generation Students
From submitting scholarship applications to furnishing a residential hall room, starting college is a whirlwind of activity. And since there’s no handbook to follow, many incoming freshmen turn to college graduates in their immediate family for guidance on how to manage the stress and demands of this exciting time.
“Parents who graduated from college can share important insight with their children, like how many hours to study for a course or that it’s OK to ask questions in class,” said Nadia Eslinger ’05, ’08, associate director of UCA’s Office of Student Success.
As Eslinger knows first-hand, however, some students who don’t have that built-in advantage. Defined as students whose parents did not earn a four-year degree, first-generation college students often enter their freshman year unsure of what lies ahead.
“It can be overwhelming for some students,” said Eslinger, a West Memphis native who arrived at UCA in the early 2000s as a first-generation student herself.
Although she was confident in her decision to attend UCA, Eslinger got off to a rocky start. Thankfully, an upperclassman noticed her unease, took Eslinger under her wing and helped her find a unique niche on campus.
“That’s when I really began to feel like this was a place where I could be successful,” she said.
Now, Eslinger’s mission is to help UCA’s nearly 600 first-generation students succeed academically, emotionally and socially. For many – like Itzel Morales – this starts well before attending their first day of class.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Morales was always encouraged to set her goals high.
“My mom was very supportive and I want to make my family proud,” the White Hall, Arkansas, native said. She chose UCA for its comfortable, home-like environment, but it was the first-generation student support network that truly set the university apart.
During high school, Morales attended Bear Facts Day and was drawn to the booth promoting FirstGen@UCA, sponsored by the Office of Student Success.
Morales connected with the First Generation Scholars Society, also known as UCA’s F1RSTs, and found a support system where students and staff members answered questions about everything from how to complete paperwork to where to find the best deals on dorm room supplies.
“Even before I got to campus, they were really helpful. I immediately knew I wanted to join,” she said. “They all made sure I was OK, even when I was under a lot of stress during my first semester,” she said.
That initial support is vital to future success for first-generation students. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, only about 20% of adults whose parents did not attend college go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. By comparison, of those with two parents who completed college, 82% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“When they start to struggle, first-generation students don’t always know where to go for help,” Eslinger said. “Unfortunately for a lot of them, one setback can derail their college career. The overall graduation rate for first generation students is lower than for continuing-generation students.”
To combat that fact, Eslinger and her team offer a variety of solutions that reach students where they are. The First Generation Summer Academy gives a small group of high school students a taste of college life, while First2Go Week features campuswide events highlighting the first-generation student experience.
Workshops and social activities also give UCA’s first-generation students a valuable outlet to engage with others facing similar situations.
“It’s never hard to talk to another first-gen student. It’s comforting and helpful to know we’ve all gone through the same things,” Morales said, adding that she is now in a position to offer her own words of wisdom.
“I will definitely be there to help the incoming freshmen. I want them to know that the first semester is the hardest, but they can do it,” she said.
Looking ahead, Eslinger said her group is now pursuing ways to support first-generation students as they become first-generation graduates and enter the world beyond college.
“If you were the first college student in your family, you may also be the first to work in a professional career or to leave your hometown. We want to stay connected with our students and help prepare them for what they will face after graduation,” Eslinger said. “I was in their shoes once and I made it. I want them to know that they can too.”