In my role at Utah Valley University, I interact with many of our students and have come to appreciate their varied backgrounds and circumstances. One story that never ceases to inspire me is that of our first-generation students — students who are the first in their families to attend college. More than one-third of our student body — 37% to be exact — fall into this category.
Enrolling in college is a big life step for those who have not had family members paving the way for them. They have not grown up hearing stories about college life, or what it takes to earn a degree. They are, in a sense, education pioneers in their families, and I admire their courage, grit and desire to better themselves and provide a better life for their children.
I see each day how higher education positively impacts young people’s lives and am passionate about creating access for those in our community who wish to attend college, especially those who are first generation. But there are challenges and barriers we need to address.
The first challenge is demystifying higher education for these individuals. A few months ago, a local business sponsored a group of students from a rural Utah community to spend a day touring our campus and meeting with various businesses along the Wasatch Front. For many of these students, being on a college campus for the first time changed their perspective and planted the idea that college could be something to consider. Most of the colleges in Utah sponsor programs like Trio and Gear Up to help educate high school students about the advantages of a college education, and providing them with the information about how to enroll.
The second challenge is helping these students navigate the college ecosystem. Like many other colleges, UVU has a dedicated First-Generation Student Success Center that has programs and services to support this group. Next month, for example, our center will host a first-generation week, encouraging them to network and dialogue about their experiences on campus.
The third challenge is financial. Many of our first-generation students come from families where funding kept their parents or other relatives from attending college. We have resources to help. I applaud the hundreds of generous members in our community who are unlocking the door of opportunity for these students by contributing to scholarships. Recently, we held an event that raised more than $667,000 for scholarships — many of which will be given to first-generation students.
In my career, I have interacted with hundreds of students who are the first in their families to attend college. I have seen firsthand the way that higher education has positively changed the trajectory of their lives, and how they have been able to make amazing contributions to our community after graduation.
If you know someone who comes from a family that has not had the benefits of college, encourage them to consider this opportunity. And better yet, if you feel inclined, share your resources to help a future first-generation student succeed!
Michelle Kearns is the vice president of student affairs at Utah Valley University.