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First-generation students reflect on experiences, struggles following First Generation Celebration Week

The celebration seeks to celebrate the achievements of students who are the first in their families to attend college

<p>First-gen Celebration Week aims to place the spotlight on this resilient group of students, encouraging community, mentorship and pride — Fisseha said that being a first-generation student has equipped him with resilience to get through many parts of college life.</p>

First-gen Celebration Week aims to place the spotlight on this resilient group of students, encouraging community, mentorship and pride — Fisseha said that being a first-generation student has equipped him with resilience to get through many parts of college life.

First-generation students make up an increasing percentage of the student body on Grounds — in the Class of 2025, a record 1,184 students are the first in their families to attend college. This group of students face unique challenges, especially at a University where 67 percent of the student population comes from the top 20 percent of the income bracket. During its National First-Generation College Celebration, the University celebrates this community with events and activities for first-gen students.

Many organizations at the University are dedicated to fostering the success of first-generation students, including Hoos First, a part of the Office of the Dean of Students. Hoos First celebrates First-Generation Celebration Week with events including the First-Gen Mixer, which allows first-generation students and faculty to meet and make connections, and Thankful Thursday, when first-generation students write letters to people who have inspired them through their college experience. 

The week of events aims to spotlight this resilient group of students and encourage community, mentorship and pride. Fisseha said that being a first-generation student has equipped him with resilience to get through many parts of college life.

“I've been able to apply that kind of grittiness, that same level of working hard and not exactly knowing where I'm gonna end up but just knowing what I need to do, how hard I need to push myself that's helped in other things like pursuing growth opportunities, maybe doing things that scare me a little bit, joining clubs and applying to jobs at the end of this,” Fisseha said. 

The 2021 First Generation Celebration Week included a first-gen snack break table which provided food and t-shirts. The Batten School and the School of Data Science also organized a catered lunch for first-gen students, staff and faculty to celebrate the first-generation experience. 

For many first-generation students, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and provided more obstacles for them to overcome. Third-year Engineering and first-generation student Thomas Ortega said being sent home for the pandemic and adjusting to online school while in an online environment was not conducive to college learning.

“[It] was just really difficult for me to transition from being in person [and] interacting like that to being online and almost isolated,” Ortega said. “But I was able to bounce back by reaching out to people who I knew could help me.”  

Fourth-year Commerce and first-generation student Tsega Fisseha emphasized the importance of finding student mentors during the college application process and throughout the college experience. Fisseha also said that some of the traditional college struggles of carving one’s own path can be more difficult for first-generation students who don’t enter the University with as much preparation as other students.

“There's so many rules and little arbitrary things that you have to know and no one really tells you that older students are in the know about,” Fisseha said.  

Third-year Engineering student Uriah Murray said he did not feel his first-generation identity played a large role in his college experience, but he noticed a disparity between first and continuing-generation students in terms of access to resources and assistance throughout the application process. 

“I don't think [being] first-generation has been a super definitive factor in [my] experience.” Murray said. “I've definitely noticed some of my friends whose parents have gone to college have been able to help them more with the application process.” 

Mentorship and transition programs — including the School of Engineering’s Summer Bridge Program and McIntire’s Commerce Cohort — have helped first-generation students and other high-need students transition into college life, introduce students to resources available on Grounds and provide a community with peers and faculty. 

Fisseha joined the Commerce Cohort as a first-year student. The group provides students access to resources and a one-credit class that Fisseha said included important information for first-generation students. 

“[The Commerce Cohort] was a really helpful part of my transition to U.Va. and felt like the first place I've definitely found a home and made a community of friends,” Fisseha said. 

Ortega said that the Engineering Summer Bridge program made transitioning into his first year at the University easier than he had initially anticipated. As an out-of-state student, Ortega arrived on Grounds without knowing many people, but said the program allowed him to meet friends during the summer before his first semester.

Assistant Dean of Students Shaka Sydnor works to support first-generation students by organizing events that help give first-gen students college skills such as financial literacy programs, panels on academic opportunities, and emotional and academic support for struggling students. Many other events promote community building among this group.

As a first-gen student himself, Sydnor said he relates many of his struggles in college to those he sees in first-gen students at the University. 

“There's some basic transition things — as well as just academic pieces — like how do you be a college student?” Sydnor said. “How do you do that well? What happens when you struggle or fail for the first time? And I think those are all the things that I had to figure out too and that I see a lot of our students [do].”

The difficulty of building or finding a community was echoed by Mona Sharaf, graduate Education student and first-generation/low-income student success coordinator. Sharaf said it is important to promote pride among first-generation students through community events such as First-Generation Celebration Week.