It’s a Saturday afternoon, but Elisa Livingston, a civil engineering major at Northeastern University, does not have the day off. Although she’s currently working full-time as a part of Northeastern’s co-op program, her weekends are often just as busy as her weekdays. Today, she is spending the morning at her kitchen table with a stack of books and her laptop, writing essays for graduate school and studying for the GRE exams.
As a first-generation college student, Livingston is aware of the added pressure that she faces to do well in school, and to be successful afterward. Her mother emigrated from Colombia to the United States when Elisa was young, and since then, she has been taking advantage of every opportunity that she can to make her family proud.
“Going to school and graduating from a university is a big deal for my family,” said Livingston. “It’s been a great experience, and I’ve definitely taken advantage of all the opportunities that Northeastern has to offer.”
Unfortunately, not all first-generation college students do as well as Livingston. According to a study done by UCLA and republished in Concordia University, while 42 percent of students whose parents attended college graduate within four years, only 27 percent of first generation college students will graduate within that time frame.
Some schools, however, are establishing programs that help first generation students navigate the confusing and often overwhelming world of
Shannon Pittman and Leroy Jackson work in the Opportunity Scholarship and Outreach Programs office at Northeastern University. They oversee four to five scholarship programs designated for first generation students, and they also provide much of the support that may not be available at home.
“First generation college students are coming from families that have zero exposure to college. They don’t have a figure in their household that they can use as a point of reference, they don’t have a role model in the college arena that they can follow, so we try to serve that purpose,” said Jackson.
Pittman agrees that the lack of exposure to college that first generation college students have received puts them at an instant disadvantage. “It trickles back to the opportunities that they receive before they get to college,” he said.
Northeastern University is certainly not the only college that is attempting to bridge the gap between first generation college students and other students. There are programs such as Bottom Line, which follows students from their junior or senior year of high school throughout college, helping them apply to college and helping students throughout their college careers. Boston University also offers a program for first generation college students, First Generation Connection, which “serves as a resources for students to ensure a smooth and successful transition from high school to college life and beyond.”
Victoria Kacprzak is a junior at Boston University who has relied on the schools program to help her throughout college. “My parents really want the best out of my four years of college, but its not like they could give me advice because they didn’t go through it. So, I do rely on the BU First Gen program to help me out with settling into college, and working out with my time management and classes or extracurricular activities,” said Kacprzak, who is majoring in neuroscience.
Carols Florian, a senior at Suffolk University, has been involved in Bottom Line since her senior year of high school. “I have support from home, but if I had a question I wouldn’t go to them because they don’t know, my parents don’t really know much about the system here,” said Florian, who is double majoring in government and applied legal studies. “The support that normal students get from home, the first generation college students won’t.”
Kacprzak and Florian are just a few examples of the countless first generation college students that benefit from supportive programs at school. Pittman believes that programs, such as those that exist in the Opportunity Scholarship and Outreach Programs office, are highly beneficial, and that more schools should establish them.
“I think a lot institutions would benefit from having a program like this at their school,” said Pittman. “I do see the value of having a program that follows them throughout their entire career… Every year, every semester there’s new challenges that come up.”
Jackson added, “The office itself is very needed. I would say that 40 to 50 percent of students wouldn’t be successful without an office like this to get them started.”
Due to the combination of support at home and programs through school, students such as Livingston, Kacprzak and Florian are beginning to think about college graduation and the significance it will have not only in their lives, but in the lives of their families as well.
“For a first generation college student it really changes where they’re going to be going, hopefully if they’re using what they’ve received right. It really changes their life in a lot of ways,” said Pittman.
“It’s going to be a big achievement, for sure,” said Kacprzak of the day she receives her college degree. “It’s going to make me super proud, and also it will definitely make my parents proud. They’ve sacrificed so much for me for me to just be here and they sent me to really good schools in high school and middle school, so for me to finally be able to complete college and complete my studies and to be one of the first in my family to do it all, it’s going to make me feel beyond happy, and my parents like ten times beyond happy. It will be a really good feeling.”
Livingston, the oldest in her family, knows the significance of graduating college. For all students, graduation is a big accomplishment, but for students like Livingston, it can change the whole family dynamic.
“There are so many people that are riding off of this and that look up to me, like my cousins and my siblings. I’m supposed to set an example and I’m supposed to do good, so there’s definitely a lot of pressure,” she said.
Already thinking about walking across the stage in May, Livingston is trying to get as many extra graduation tickets as she can, as family will be visiting from around the country, as well as Columbia. But she knows that there’s one person that will be especially proud.
“For my mom, specifically, this is why she came to this country, for that moment, for me to graduate from school, from college,” said Livingston.