On Wednesday, as part of a series to promote the success of first-generation college students, the Office of the Vice President for Student Life hosted a symposium called “Blazing a Trail to First-Gen Success” at Rackham Assembly Hall, attended mainly by faculty and staff.

Approximately 13.89 percent of the undergraduate student body and 9.8 percent of the graduate student body is considered “first generation,” defined as being the first in their family to attend a four-year college or university. Fifty-two percent of first-generation students also fall below the $50,000 annual household income bracket, according to the presentation. 

Terra Molengraff, a success coach for the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, introduced Javier Solorzano Parada, program manager for the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and the event’s keynote lecturer. Molengraff explained one of the challenges of being first-generation is describing experiences to those who do not share the same identity.

“While not all students translate from one language to another to their family or their parents, I think that distinct significance of being first-gen is translating your experience to your family or to individuals who might not necessarily understand what exactly is happening,” Molengraff said.

Parada emphasized the importance of sharing experiences through storytelling.

Parada came to the University as an undocumented, first-generation student. He discussed his experience growing up homeless after his parents split and were sent back to Mexico, not being able to return for 10 years. Parada was allowed to stay in the United States because his stepfather could care for him.                                                                                               

“To me, these things were not hurtful because I was a kid,” Parada said. “I was a young student who was just looking at the positive things in life … It didn’t hit me until a couple of years where my ex-stepfather and mother separated. This was a moment where I was homeless. But I knew always for some reason I had a great time at school and education was something that (tended) to lift me up.”

Parada was denied on his first attempt to apply to the University. He then attended Eastern Michigan University before transferring to the University of Michigan his sophomore year.

“I still have that denial letter with me and it says, ‘We’re sorry, but we don’t want you here’” Parada said. “I took that to heart and said, ‘Okay, you’ll see.’ At the time, it was very hurtful.”

Parada also recounted a time when a professor emailed him after submitting an essay asking to speak with him about his writing. The professor told him his ideas were great, but that he needed to improve his academic composition. Parada said this was the first time he felt someone attempted to understand his identity. 

“This was the first time where I said someone was able to make time to listen,” Parada said.

Parada realized the experiences he faced as a first-generation student were unique to him and emphasized a need to not homogenize student experiences and identities.

“Some students may not have grown up with planned vacations or famous authors or book titles on top of their heads or were given NPR radio stations when they were younger,” Parada said. “My question to you is when was the last time you assumed an experience of a student and how can you begin noticing these assumptions before engaging in those conversations?”

The symposium then broke into a working session on identifying as first-generation, intersecting identities and diverse perspectives in higher education.

Fred Lewis Terry, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, discussed concerns of overwhelming students with information as they arrive to campus.

“What we worry at orientation is we could tell you, ‘Here’s the pathway to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,’ and they get so numbed out that it’s overwhelming,” Terry said.

Ayeza Siddiqi, assistant director of the Office of New Student Programs, emphasized providing more activities and resources catering to first-generation students.

“With our freshman mentoring program, we’ve been trying to … keep the program more towards diverse and low-income students and providing more activities and resources we know would be beneficial to them,” Siddiqi said. “We’re talking a lot more about these identities.”

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