Marissa Zelman, first-generation Binghamton alumna, Assistant Director of the TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) Program at Binghamton University, and Chair of the BFirst Committee, sheds some light on what it means to be first-gen, and invites you to join BFirst, Binghamton’s first-ever first-gen network.
What is “First-Generation”?
If you’re a first-generation (FG) college student, it means you’re navigating college with limited resources, the burden of being the first, and the strong motivation to succeed. It also means you’re working hard to overcome hurdles not experienced by many of your peers.
FG college students…
- Lack social capital, and cannot rely on families for advice and support
- Struggle with navigating campus and higher education systems
- Face barriers of isolation that impact college success
- Experience imposter syndrome, and feelings of inadequacy
- Have lower retention rates and graduation rates, nationwide, without proper support
The FG identity has more recently been focused on nationally at the college level with several colleges dedicating programming, mentorship, and affinity groups to students who share this invisible identity (that is all too often unknown and endured silently). In fact, most FG students don’t even realize they are FG and are unaware of just how large this invisible community is on our campus!
31% of students who attend our University are first-generation. But, what is first-generation?
What does that mean?
- It means neither of your parents or guardians with whom you live earned a baccalaureate degree or higher.
- It could mean your parents or guardians may have attempted to go to college, but dropped out.
- It could mean your parents or guardians did not go to college at all, or may not have graduated from high school or grade school.
- It could mean you are the first in your family to attend and graduate college, but could also mean you have an older sibling who may have already attended or graduated college
The definition of first-gen is a *bit* expanded upon, depending on who you talk to nation-wide. BFirst seeks to be the *most* inclusive with its definition of FG, including:
- Students whose parents or guardians may have earned a degree in another country, and are either
- unable to help their student navigate the American educational system and/or
- unable to obtain a career in their educational field in this country
- Students who self-identify as first-generation college student, as they lack support and guidance from their parents or guardians (even though one or both may have degrees)
In my experience advising students for TRIO SSS, you’d be surprised how many low-income (“on paper”, not first-generation) college students would fit the expanded definition of FG. For example, I’ve advised a student whose immigrant father drives taxi cabs, yet earned a science degree in another country. Then there’s the low-income student whose mother earned a Masters degree, yet actively discourages that student from going to college! Unable to find a well-paying job in her field, and financially struggling to repay her college loans, she just doesn’t want her child to make the same “mistake” of pursuing higher education.
These students may have their parents or guardians on paper as degree-holders, but definitely lack that support and guidance that many of our Binghamton University students have back home. If you’re reading this and thinking this sounds like me, you’re not alone.
If given the support, you can and do rise to success
Perhaps the highest honor a student can receive in the SUNY System is the Chancellor’s Award for Undergraduate Student Excellence. Last year, there were roughly 10 to 12 students awarded this honor, and we know at least 3 of them are FG because they were participants in our TRIO Program.
Even more impressive are our Famous First-Gens!
- Sonia Sotomayor: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
- Michelle Kwan: Olympic Figure Skater.
- Michelle Obama: 44th First Lady of the United States.
- Howard Schultz: Chairman and CEO of Starbucks.
- Colin Powell: 65th Secretary of State of the United States.
- Oprah Winfrey: Talk-show host, actress, producer, television network owner and philanthropist
- Albert Einstein: World-renowned physicist and Nobel Prize winner
- Viola Davis: Award-winning actress and producer
- Walt Disney: Entrepreneur, writer, film producer, and pioneer of animation
- Samuel L. Jackson: Award-winning actor and film producer
As a First-Gen, you belong to a community of fighters, underdogs, and resilient folks, nationwide and globally. Campus-wide, you can now belong to a pretty sweet mentoring network that hosts occasional large-scale FG networking events and regular informal workshops and meet n’ greets.
The BFirst Mentoring Network seeks to support FG college students, by connecting them to fellow FG faculty, staff, graduate student, and alumni mentors. Launched only a year ago, we currently have 186 FG faculty, staff, alumni, and students within our BFirst Network! Additionally, through our programming, we hope to celebrate the FG identity, and create a sense of belonging and community for first-gens at Binghamton. Join us!
Are YOU First Gen? Here’s How You Can Get Involved
- Join our BFirst Network and find a mentor! Complete our form here: https://forms.gle/rMxcfYqJLmuskx536 to get started.
- Attend BFirst Events:
- Each year, in honor of the National First-Generation College Celebration Day on 11/8 (the anniversary of the Authorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965) BFirst launches a celebration! Last year is when we launched our BFirst Network and it was a great success: We had over 100 FG faculty, staff, alumni, and students in attendance, and heard stories of adversity and resilience, from fellow FG voices, bringing to light common struggles and successes. We even heard remarks from our University President, who supports our mission! This year, BFirst is planning *an entire week* of virtual events beginning Monday, 11/2 and ending with a main FG virtual networking event on Friday, 11/6. We’ll be advertising this FG Week soon—in the meantime save-the-week to plan to attend as many events as possible! #CelebrateFirstGen
- We offer recurring monthly activities:
- We’re hosting Mentor Mondays each month during academic semesters to allow the BFirst Network to gather in a less structured way, and talk about first-gen specific topics. More details will be emailed out to the Network soon, so be sure to complete that short form above to be added to our listserv!
- We’re also hosting First-Gen Fridays, which is just a space for first-gen students on campus to casually connect on campus! More details will be emailed out soon about this too!
- Last spring, BFirst hosted a First-Gen Graduation Celebration, and we definitely plan to do it again! If you’d like to help plan this event, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Use Mentor Match: Mentor Match is an online platform that hosts Mentor-and Mentee-created bio pages, allowing Mentees to select (based on survey matching percentages) their closest matches, and make appointments with Mentors. Just be sure to tag yourself as first-generation! You can also filter your Mentor search by the first-generation identity too!
- Spread the word about BFirst! We’re a completely grassroots initiative, with much of our work being done well after the workday ends. The BFirst Committee meets biweekly to design and implement BFirst programming and consists of a dozen FG faculty, staff, administrators, a Clark Fellowship recipient, and students. This is a passion project for each of us—we do this work 100% on a volunteer basis, because as FG students ourselves, we know just how hard it can be to navigate the higher education system with little to no support. Check out our (under-construction!) website here: binghamton.edu/bfirst and get the word out!