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Flying Proud: First-Generation College Student Spotlight

A fist-generation college student’s acceptance letter is more than just a piece of paper tucked into an envelope. It’s a call to spread their wings and soar to the nest that is Monmouth University’s campus.

Isabel Claros, a sophomore social work student, described the day she got her acceptance letter as a joyful occasion. Although she always saw herself going to college, her family’s happiness stood out to her the most. In fact, a first-generation student’s college acceptance is about more than just themselves.

Claros said, “Being at Monmouth and having my parents say, ‘We are so proud of you’ is what really makes it unbelievable.”

According to the University, a first-generation college student is defined as a student who is the first member of their family to attend college. Thirty-two percent of Monmouth students are first-generation students, compared to 56 percent of students nationally as of the 2015-16 academic year, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

Families of first-generation students often encourage them to go to college. Parents want their child to experience, learn, and obtain more than they ever could.

Kennedy Johnson, a sophomore business marketing student, always saw college in her future. Johnson’s grandmother made it clear from the beginning that she would be going to college. Her grandmother wanted her to have opportunities she was never awarded, which provided the right motivation Johnson needed to pursue her college goals.

Monmouth’s First to Fly club began in 2017 and gives all first-generation students on campus a support system, a group of people to talk to who have the same experiences, so that they can be assured that they are not alone. On March 4, 2020, the University was recognized as a First-gen Forward institution, due to its commitment to advancing the outcomes of first-generation students, by the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

Claude Taylor, a Professor of Communication and Faculty Advisor for First to Fly, said, “First to Fly is a key part of our campus-wide effort to meet first-generation students where they are and be a resource for them from day one.”

Taylor, a first-generation student himself, understands the importance of helping first-generation students because he knows what an education means to them and their families.

Rebecca Gonzalez, a senior social work student, first met Taylor as a freshman. Since then, she was able to voice her concerns and maintain a relationship with him throughout the years. Gonzalez stated that although it was nice knowing she was the first in her family to go to college, that feeling was also accompanied by loneliness and isolation because she could not turn to her family for guidance.

“Being the first to graduate within my family is stressful but also blissful,” she reflected. However, Taylor has provided a space for her to speak up about concerns, offering guidance as she works towards her degree.

Every first-generation student has a different experience. Some are joyful, some are hard, and some are flat out scary. Doing something new is always a daunting task, but it’s also the most rewarding.

Celine Powell, a junior communication student, said, “At first, I was embarrassed and did not want anyone to know that I was first-generation because I was the first not only in my family, but also my community to go to college.” It was a big adjustment for Celine. She was used to people getting married and having kids young. She came to the United States to take advantage of all the opportunities she could.

Powell recalled a moment in which she called her grandmother back in the Caribbean and told her she was going to college. Her grandmother was confused as to why she was going to college instead of getting married. Celine then explained that it was time for her to get an education. It was hard at first because no one she knew could relate. Now, she is glad she made the decision to come to college because it is a part of who she is and has allowed her to grow. Now, she can be a proud role model for those little girls back home who Celine knows can amount to the same things she has.

Powell and Gonzalez, co-founders of First to Fly, are both EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund) scholars. A majority of EOF students are first-generation, coming from low economic backgrounds and/or minority backgrounds. It is a common misconception that only minorities are first-generation, but many students of different backgrounds and circumstances can be the first in their family to attend college.

With this in mind, Powell and Gonzalez wanted to provide a place for all first-generation students. They know that EOF helps 40 students a year, but there are some first-generation students not in EOF who need guidance—and that is what Powell and Gonzalez were looking to provide.

So, if you’re the first in your family to attend college, wear your First to Fly badge proudly.

PHOTO COURTESY of Monmouth University