The writer is chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The first day of fall semester classes is a big one for all university students, especially for freshmen. For first-year students who are also the first in their family to attend walk through the university doors? It is like entering a new world.
It’s not that first-generation students are any less prepared for college coursework. Survey data reported by Inside Higher Ed shows they are just as or more engaged in class and committed to academic work as other students. It’s in overcoming challenging situations and social comfort where first-gen students lag behind their peers.
I know the feeling — I was the first in my family to attend college. Even though I’d set foot on the Virginia Tech University campus for high school FFA conventions, navigating university life as a freshman felt like I was wandering in a foreign land.
Everyone I came to know that first year — a close-knit circle of friends to whom I remain connected today — had family who’d been to college. My family encouraged and pushed me, but they could offer little help when it came to sorting out scholarships and financial aid or even how to seek out a professor during office hours.
I was lucky to make fast friends with a deeper familiarity with the college experience. Not every first-generation student is so fortunate.
Nearly one-fourth of this fall’s first-time students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will be first-generation students. We will support them through several initiatives.
Our “I’m First” Symposium brings first-generation high school students to campus each spring to help them overcome the barriers they face while preparing for college, paying tuition and finding support. Students who attend the symposium have opportunities for scholarships and enrollment in the university’s Emerging Leaders program.
Since 2015, our First Husker program has provided first-generation students a free four-day orientation before the fall semester begins, to help them adjust to college. Later, these students attend an academic success seminar and receive one-on-one coaching.
First-Generation Nebraska connects first-generation students with faculty and staff mentors who self-identify as first-generation scholars or advocates.
The Center for First-generation Student Success recently recognized our commitment to improving experiences and outcomes of first-generation college students by including UNL in the inaugural cohort of its First Forward Institutions.
Our commitment doesn’t end there. Since 2006, our Nebraska College Preparatory Academy has increased the number of college-bound first-generation, low-income students — and helped them succeed in college. Eighty-five percent of the fall 2014 NCPA college cohort has graduated. Today, the academy is a partnership between UNL and Grand Island Public High School, Omaha North and Omaha South Magnet High Schools and Winnebago High School.
In July, 38 Nebraska high school students participated in the DREAMBIG Academy hosted by our College of Business. Since the academy began in 2012, more than 300 students have attended, with nearly 75% becoming first-generation students — and 73% becoming Huskers.
All college students, and, as research shows, especially those who are first-generation, can benefit from strengthening their ability to overcome challenges. Last year, we began a program called Big Red Resilience and Well-Being, which provides fun events, innovative education and dynamic services to help students connect with others, develop grit and navigate transitions.
There’s too much at stake for our country and our state not to do everything we can to support and encourage our first-generation students.
As an 18-year-old college freshman, I would have never dreamed that I would earn a Ph.D. and eventually lead one of America’s premier public land-grant research universities.
I’m living proof that anything is possible for a first-generation student. At UNL, creating lifelong opportunities through accessible higher education is a commitment we started 150 years ago and one that remains central and core to our mission.
It’s critical to the future — for our students, and for Nebraska.