By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published May 1, 2014
Before the evening’s ceremony began, LSA senior Samantha Baker had already distributed a small stack of yellow envelopes.
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A thank you note for Mom and Dad, another for her academic adviser, Elise and finally a card for her younger sister all rested on the table.
Baker, like most of the students in the Michigan Union’s Anderson Room Wednesday, was intent on thanking her family for their support in achieving a milestone they never did: earning a college degree.
“My parents always supported anything I wanted to do — even going to college — and though it’s not something that’s super affordable right now, they supported me through the entire thing,” she said.
A few days before receiving diplomas in Michigan Stadium, nearly 60 students joined their families Wednesday for the fourth annual celebration dinner and graduation ceremony for University students who are the first in their respective families to graduate from college.
Sponsored by First-Generation College Students, a seven-year-old student organization designed to foster a sense of community among the University’s population of first-generation college students, the event’s attendance was nearly triple that of the previous year.
In the keynote speech, University Provost Martha Pollack drew on her experiences as the first person in her family to attend a residential college. Though her father earned a business degree by attending night school while working full-time, Pollack said she did not have access to the same guidance as many of her peers.
“When I got to college, many of things I faced, many of the feelings I had, many of the fears I had, were probably similar to the things each of you experience,” she said.
When Pollack arrived at Dartmouth, the institution had only started admitting women a few years earlier. At the time, the fight song still trumpeted the “men of Dartmouth.”
“So frankly, between my gender, my ethnic background and my almost-first generation college status, I was pretty different from most of my fellow students and I was certainly not at all like the generations of other students who had preceded me at Dartmouth,” she said. “There were a lot of reminders of my differences.”
At the University, Pollack entered a department that she said had more professors named Igor than female faculty. She later helped form a group of women professors who followed in her footsteps and who still meet for drinks and dinner today.
“It was an unconscious reaction to our sense we didn’t quite belong here and a need to remind ourselves we did,” she said.
Like Pollack’s company of female colleagues, First-Gens provides a support system and community for students walking in similar shoes.
When LSA senior Carson Phillips, the outgoing First-Gens president, came to the University as a freshman, he said he didn’t see his first generation college student status as an identity. First-Gens, however, helped him to embrace the significance — and adapt to the challenges — of being the first in the family to attend college.
“First-gens are trailblazers,” he said in an address to the class of 2014. “They are literally charting new territory. They are going out into the open with no rules, no handbook… They are boundary crossers. They are able to move between different cultures.”
Many first generation graduates, for example, said finding the ability to move back and forth between the cultures at school and back home can be difficult, especially when both parents do not have their own college experiences to relate.
Multiple students said they lacked the same guidance in applying to and starting college as peers with parents who attended a traditional institution of higher education.
LSA senior Shanice Person said there is sometimes a discord between first generation students and their parents when it comes to advice related to academics and life on campus. That can make the transition to college much more challenging.
“You really feel like you’re in a big place and there’s not that much guidance,” she said.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event, Phillips said First-Gen seeks to fill that hole by connecting peers experiencing similar problems and mentors who can help first-generation students navigate campus life.
Phillips said one of the group’s challenges is to help people understand that though being a first generation college student has its negative aspects, there are also a plethora of positives.
“One of the things is, how do we get beyond this stigma and let students realize first-gens is something we should be proud of?” he said.
Phillips also noted that many first generation students come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which can be perpetuate stigmas at a school composed of a much wealthier student body at large.
In addition to promoting pride in students’ unique position as the first in their family to attend college, the group’s leadership has also set a series of goals for the year 2020, including the creation of a First-Gen resource center and increasing the recruitment and retention of first generation college students.
According to Phillips, 13 percent of the University’s student population is currently made up of students who are the first in their family to attend college.
Though the students are linked by their first-gen status, the gathering Wednesday was composed of a diverse crop of students.
Unlike a traditional graduate ceremony, each student in attendance had the chance to say a few remarks to the crowd before receiving a blue graduation cord and pin. A majority of the students filled their few seconds at the podium sharing both their goals and stories of their pasts.
At an event centered on students who achieved what their parents did not, almost all thanked their parents. Others emphasized that they may be the first to achieve a degree in their family, but they will not be the last.
With her dad gleaming, a camera pressed against his forehead, one student became teary-eyed at the podium.
She gestured toward her sister:
“She’s going to be next.”