For LSA senior Christina Castillo, attending college was not just the natural next step after graduating high school — it was a life changer. In addition to her role as a University student, Castillo is a single mother.

The student-run organization First Generation Students @ Michigan provided Castillo the opportunity to share her experience as both a mother and a first generation college student Tuesday evening at its “First Generation Dinner.”

First Gen raises awareness for and addresses the unique needs of first generation college students. The organization was founded in the fall of 2007 and is the first student-led organization of its type in the country.

After attending high school in California, Castillo dropped in and out of community college since 2003 for about a decade because of an abusive home life.

“My daughter and I were domestic violence victims,” she said. “I left everything when I left my daughter’s father. I was having a hard time being on welfare and felt like I was always struggling — I decided then that college was the way to go.”

Castillo has always wanted to attend the University. In 2013, she enrolled at the age of 28.

“I left everything in California and came on a train with my daughter,” Castillo said. “(Attending the University) has been the hardest thing ever in my life. Having to be first generation, run my house, go to school and go to work — it’s just been non-stop. But I would never change any of that because it built my character and showed my daughter that she can be capable of anything.”

Faculty adviser Dwight Lang said in an e-mail interview that the purpose of the event is to publicly recognize all first generation students at the University.

“(The dinner) recognizes and celebrates the presence of U of M students who are first in their families to attend and graduate from college,” Lang said. “In this sense the dinner is very inclusive.”

Speaking at the dinner, Lang described the decision for first generation students to attend college as life altering.

“If you are the first in your family to attend or graduate from college, going off to college can be a very powerful experience,” Lang said. “You’ve taken certain risks by going off to college and you’ve crossed boundaries to new places that maybe you aren’t familiar with, different in a variety of ways from the situations of your families and communities where you grew up.”

Many students who chose to share their personal experiences as the first in their family to attend college also emphasized the magnitude of the decision. A major theme of the evening centered on the analogy of attending college as taking a risk.

Engineering junior Chris Reynolds said he identified strongly with that comparison as an out-of-state first generation student.

“I’m from out of state and drove hundreds of miles to get here. My dad dropped me off and left the same night,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think of first generation students as first generation students, I think of them as risk takers.”

LSA senior Daniel Park also said his identity as a first generation college student could sometimes be isolating. He said talking about his family background often elicited awkward responses.

“I’ve had friends and roommates ask me what my parents did and where they went to school,” Park said. “I would say that my mother is an interpreter and my father a small business owner. They were both laborers. People would respond with ‘Oh.’ ”

Lang said a major goal of the organization is to provide peer support for first generation students who may have a different socio-economic background than most other students on campus. He said 87 percent of undergraduates have parents with bachelors or professional degrees.

“The U of M is essentially a middle and upper-middle class institution,” Lang said. “First Generation Students @ Michigan helps students make social and personal adjustments to campus and academic environments they may not be familiar with.”

Castillo said one improvement the University could make would be to offer better community resources for first generation students and student parents.

“Sometimes I would not have enough food on the table and still have to worry about being a student. The hardest thing was trying to balance everything and finding assistance from the University,” Castillo said. “There have been times where I’ve had to drag my kid to class and teachers were not always understanding.”

The University’s Office of the Vice Provost Equity, Inclusion and Academic Affairs also sponsored the dinner. University Vice Provost Robert M. Sellers spoke at the event and said it is important that the University have resources in place to meet the challenges faced by first generation students.

“Our goal is to work with the students, the faculty, as well as staff to help the University do a much better job of providing an elite education without being elitist,” Sellers said. “The University of Michigan is your University. Never, ever, ever feel otherwise.”

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