U.Va. initiative recognizes first-generation students, faculty

Event part of Sullivan's "Total Advising" initiative

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“It was interesting to see all of these stories and to see how many people had similar stories to mine,” Choi said.

Carly Mulinda | Cavalier Daily

University President Teresa Sullivan and United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity hosted First-Gen Initiative, an event Tuesday featuring speeches from first-generation students at the University and aimed at fostering relationships among 130 first-generation college students and 70 faculty members. The event took place in Newcomb Hall.

In the fall, Sullivan encouraged faculty members to self-identify as first-generation students. Over 225 faculty members have identified with the hopes of providing support and mentorship to 1,525 first-generation undergraduate students.

UFUSED Co-Chair Santiago Naranjo, a third-year Commerce student, said his first-generation background promotes a sense of individualism which pushes him to succeed but also makes him hesitant to ask for help.

“Seeking help is often difficult for first-generation or low-income students, and I think we’re trying to address that by establishing a connection on a deeper level between faculty and students,” Naranjo said.

This event was a part of Sullivan’s “Total Advising” initiative, a comprehensive approach to student advising aimed at meeting first-generation students’ needs.

“Making these connections between students and faculty is a major part of the University’s plan for the future,” Sullivan said in an email statement.

Featuring a variety of speakers such as Nicole Ruzek, assistant director for clinical services at Counseling and Psychological Services, and Associate Dean of Students Laurie Casteen, the event presented resources available to first-generation students such as study abroad, financial aid and mentoring.

Second-year College student Grace Choi said the event showed her how many other first-generation students there are at the University.

“It was interesting to see all of these stories and to see how many people had similar stories to mine,” Choi said.

Fourth-year College student Ulisses Santamaria said what he hopes to gain from the program is insight and inspiration.

“I actually thought there weren’t any first-generation student faculty,” Santamaria said.

Environmental Science Prof. Aaron Mills shared his experience as a first-generation student at the event, describing navigating a completely new environment that others take for granted. Mills said it took him a while to understand the idea of school as a job.

“A big [realization] for me was … the tremendous immersion of education that I hadn’t had before, and since nobody in my family had experienced it, they couldn’t prepare me for that,” Mills said. “This is what you do 40, 50, 60 hours a week, to treat school as though you’re working in a kitchen somewhere — that kind of time investment and more.”

Commerce Prof. Robert Kemp emphasized the unique struggle first-generation college students face.

“I want you to appreciate that those first generation students had to work a little harder intellectually, physically, financially, to sit in that seat beside you in that class,” Kemp said.

Neurology Assoc. Prof. Nina Solenski, chair of the Faculty Senate, is a first-generation faculty member. Speaking at the event, she urged first-generation students to recognize and feel empowered by their differences.

“Different is not only good but it also creates the virtues of grit, gratitude and goodness,” Solenski said. “You’ve got this.”

Naranjo said his unique background as a Colombian immigrant made finding a community at the University difficult.

“You’re bombarded by images and norms that elicit a sense of wealth,” Naranjo said. “I think that it’s hard to identify with a space like that when you come from a place that is so different.”

Fourth-year College student Melanie Witten shared her experiences as a first-generation student as a speaker at the event. She pressed the importance of not being embarrassed by background, but rather owning individual accomplishments.

“Legacy didn’t get you here. A good school didn’t get you here. Opportunities didn’t even get you here. You got you here,” Witten said.

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