New organization for first generation college students fosters safe space, combats stigma

Senior Katelyn Montalvo and sophomore Stephen Tran are members of the First Generation College Student Council, which aims to give students who consider themselves first generation a space to discuss their experiences. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

For students who are the first in their generation to attend college, Tufts presents a unique set of challenges and stresses, particularly without the first hand experience of their family as support. That’s where the First Generation College Student Council comes in.

According to senior Katelyn Montalvo, a faculty member in Dowling created the Council in the spring of 2012 to provide a community and support system for self-identifying first generation college students. The following year, Laura Doane, Dean of Orientation and Student Transition, took over.

Montalvo, the coordinator of the group, helped officially found the Council last year as her Tisch Scholars project. Though the Council is run through the Office of Transitions, it is a student-based group, she said.

First generation students don’t really have a support network when they come to campus,” Montalvo said. “[The Council’s mission is] to create a support network and a community for first generation students.”

Tufts’ official definition of “first generation” is decidedly narrow, according to Montalvo. In order for a student to qualify as first generation, neither of his or her parents may hold a bachelor’s degree from any college in the United States. This excludes students like Montalvo, whose mother attended community college. Montalvo maintains that her mother’s years in college were different from the traditional four-year experience, and thus Montalvo identifies herself as a first generation student.

According to Stephen Tran, a sophomore from Taunton, Mass.the Council has hosted events like a financial aid workshop, aimed at refreshing students’ memories about the financial aid application process and helping them reapply. Tran said that the Council also works across Boston, reaching out to first generation students on other campuses to extend their community.

One point that Montalvo emphasized was the group’s inclusiveness.

“If you identify as first generation, you are welcome to the Council,” she said.

Dulce Delgado, a senior from the Chicago area, has just become involved with the Council this year and described her experiences so far as rewarding. She shared that in addition to the sense of community she has gained, she has also enjoyed making friends with students from different classes.

“I really appreciate … the first generation community,” Delgado said. “[I have been able to get] to know a couple of [first-years] on a deeper level.”

Tran has been involved in the Council since his first semester at Tufts. Now the group’s social chair, Tran originally wanted to get involved in the Council to find others who shared his experiences. Though Tran has been involved in the Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts (BLAST) progran, he sought another support system, which he found in the Council.

Tran described his experiences applying to college as very different from most of his friends’ experiences. He shared that while most of his classmates’ parents had degrees, there was a lot of information that his parents were not able to share with him.

“They expected me to go to college, but at the same time they weren’t a help … in applying,” he said.

Delgado shared similar experiences, despite being in a college preparatory scholarship program.

“[My parents] did not have the knowledge of how to maneuver a four-year university,” she said.

Delgado, Tran and Montalvo all shared that the existence of groups such as the Council and the BLAST programs were not a factor in their decisions to come to Tufts.

All of these programs are super new,” Montalvo said. “I think there’s a lot more information now at Tufts and at other colleges about first generation students because it’s a growing movement, but when we were applying there was nothing out there.”

According to Delgado, the BLAST programs are a great start, but are rather exclusive.

“There definitely needs to be something … to target these first generation students and bring them in and let them know ‘we’re going to help you, and you’re not going to be alone,’” Delgado said.

Montalvo shared that the group has helped her form and appreciate her first generation identity, and that the group has worked to bring this pride to others in the first generation community.

“First generation is really stigmatized when it shouldn’t be,” she said. “We’ve gone through so much and we’ve made it here, and we’re continuing.”

Delgado agreed that being a first generation student presents challenges that other students may not face. She also expressed concern that this is a struggle shared by other first generation students.

“As a first generation student, when I came on campus, I was looking for that comfort that everyone else seemed to have naturally,” Delgado said.

Montalvo also discussed her difficulties adjusting to college life. Though many identities were being pushed upon her, she realized that her struggle lay elsewhere.

“I definitely did not feel like a part of this campus my first semester,” Montalvo said“It wasn’t until second semester when a faculty member was saying that she was starting this council that I realized that’s what I was struggling with.”

Like Tran and Delgado, Montalvo expressed a sense of being at a disadvantage as a first generation student when she started her college career.

In a recent meeting, the Council discussed an article written by Teresa Heinz Housel, a first generation student who graduated almost twenty years ago. Housel urged universities to offer more help to other first generation students by providing opportunities to learn about their new environment.

While some supported the sentiments shared in the article, many expressed an aversion to the implication that first generation students need help. The discussion also involved cultural and gender identity issues as well as debates about the author’s position, privilege and perspective.

The group members shared insights into their own experiences, citing statistics they had heard about the first generation students on the Tufts campus. Freshman Gregory Chin expressed his concern that despite the large population of first generation students on campus, the scale to which they have organized remains rather small.

According to Montalvo, the group consists of seven core members, but holds meetings that are open to everyone.

“You don’t necessarily have to be on the board to be a part of the council,” Montalvo said. “[Meetings and events are] open to any student who identifies as first generation or anyone who just wants to support [the group].”

According to Tran, the Council is hoping to develop a strong base and organize themselves in order to have a bigger presence on campus. In the long term, they aim to develop a mentorship program where they would pair underclassmen with upperclassmen and host bigger events, Tran said. Delgado added that they also hope to develop a relationship between undergraduates and alumni.

Tran expressed his sentiments about the perception of first generation students on campus and emphasized that they are not asking for help.

“Although we’re talking about how we’re ‘struggling,’ we’re not looking for people to pity us,” he said. “We’re just looking for an open space, a safe space, where we can discuss and learn from one another.”

Correction: November 13, 2014

In a previous version of this article, first generation students were incorrectly defined as “the first in their generation to attend college.” The definition is, in fact, “the first generation in their family to attend college.”

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