First-generation student panelists convened Tuesday morning for a discussion about the invaluable role of mentorship in transitioning to life at the University of Michigan. The panel, hosted by the Office of New Student Programs, took place during First Gen Week as part of a series that spotlights the unique experiences of first-generation students and will culminate with the First-Generation Symposium on Nov. 2.

Ayeza Siddiqi, assistant director of ONSP, opened the panel by defining what it means to be a first-generation student and noting how this identity applies to many students regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic class. 

“Because it is an invisible identity … it can be hard to know who’s first gen despite the fact that there are over 3,500 first-gen students on this campus,” Siddiqi said. “Hearing about these students and hearing about their narratives is going to be really critical as we move forward in doing the work that we do.”

Though first-generation students account for a sizable portion of the total students on campus, they are still a distinct minority and often struggle to find resources to help them acclimate to the demands of college. According to the 2016 Campus Climate Survey on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, first-generation students comprise approximately 8 percent of the student body and are, on the whole, less satisfied with the campus climate than their continuing-generation counterparts.

Panelist Jiten Parbhoo, an LSA senior, said coming to the University as a first-generation student was a bewildering experience at first because he did not know the basics of how college functioned.

“I didn’t know what credits were,” Parbhoo said. “I didn’t know how many credits you need to take, or what’s a four-credit class, or what’s a lab and why it’s different from a class … They don’t know anything, really. That was the biggest part. Also, you don’t really know what you don’t know. That’s the hardest part.”

A lot of the discussion focused on the role mentorship can play in forming support networks for first-generation students and helping them understand these basic facts. Resources such as First-Generation College Students @ Michigan, an organization created in 2007 by undergraduates, provides events and workshops for students navigating the University for the first time. Panelist Taryn Hayes, an LSA junior, said her experience with mentorship in the Women in Science and Engineering residential community gave her the confidence to pursue a field that she previously shied away from.

“WISE was amazing,” Hayes said. “It really supports women in STEM, because women are often underrepresented in STEM fields. I truly believe that if I wasn’t in WISE, I wouldn’t be pre-med still today. It’s a really intimidating field and I received nothing but support from my peers and my advisers.”

Siddiqi, who moderated the discussion, was a first-generation at the University as well and noted how 32 different mentoring programs on campus give students a sense of direction that their parents are often not in the position to offer.

“I was in the Transfer Connections mentoring program, and it shaped me as a person and shaped what I do because my mentor in the program told me about higher education as a field of work,” Siddiqi said. “I didn’t know that that could be a thing, my parents still don’t know what I do in my life, but I have a decent, stable job. It’s just opening up those avenues and opportunities that you didn’t think were initially possible because your parents might not have had the same experience.”

Panelist Nourel-Hoda Eidy, a Public Health junior, said having to explain her interests and field of study to disapproving parents is a unique challenge many first-generation students face. Eidy, who said that she has “very immigrant parents,” explained how her family is supportive of her studies but still remain distant from her life at the University.

“My parents still don’t ask about school,” Eidy said. “I think that for a lot of us it builds a lot of autonomy in knowing that I can’t complain to my dad about school or complain to my mom about school. My dad works insane amount of hours and is insanely exhausted when he comes home. My parents, their purpose was, ‘We’re going to immigrate, we’re going to provide you with the resources, but you’re going to figure it out.’”

Hayes said while first-generation students may struggle to keep up with their continuing-generation peers, they are often high-achieving students with a strong work ethic and desire to succeed.

“I would say don’t doubt us,” Hayes said. “I mean, even though we might need a little more guidance and a little bit more patience, we can still accomplish really good things. I’m sitting next to an amazing group of students who have accomplished amazing, great things, and I know that we’re all really excited for our futures and when it comes to that, we are equal to students who are not first generation.”

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