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From the colorful regalia to the overwhelming sense of joy emanating from the graduating student body, commencement season is a special time in the academic year. It’s also a time to mark the thrilling transitions that students are about to embark upon: gap years, new careers or graduate school, to just name a few.

But as we all know, this season is not solely about the soon-to-be alum. It also brings families and extended support systems to campus to celebrate the graduates, their accomplishments and their distinct journey to completion -- some who are experiencing this type of event for the first time.

According to a 2013 report presented by the College Board, “first generation” or “first in family” are the terms that are often used to refer to those students who are the first in their immediate families to pursue a postsecondary degree. Graduation is special for any student. But for first-generation students and their families -- both traditional and otherwise -- graduation is a significant accomplishment in the face of tremendous odds that have too often prevented those students from earning an advanced degree.

Despite institutional resources being in place to assist first-generation students, the bureaucratic system remains geared toward students who already have the cultural capital necessary to navigate it. The result is that graduation rates remain low, especially for low-income, first-generation students. Other challenges facing first-generation students that are sometimes misunderstood include but are not limited to race, ethnicity, age and native language -- all of which greatly affect persistence rates. As in many fields, the data do not tell the complete story without thoughtful consideration of the mosaic of students’ experiences both on campuses and off.

And that leads me back to graduation ceremonies and the stories that I had the opportunity to hear, and overhear, during these culminating graduation events with first-generation students and their families. My advice for campus leaders comes with an unwavering admission of my own privilege: my position within the university, my socioeconomic status and my race. But I am also a woman who has had to navigate unknown and rather uncomfortable gendered spaces throughout my undergraduate academic experience and career in order to achieve my personal and professional goals.

While I was not a first-in-family student, here are three recommendations that I hope can inform and ultimately help students and those who support them have a clearer course in their higher education pursuits.

Share practical information. Happily, more students, first generation and others, can tell stories of having found adequate support on campuses that had a positive effect on their college experience. Most colleges and universities have student support and success centers like the one at Metropolitan State University of Denver, developed to help the entire student body navigate the university culture and adopt practices needed to excel. Resources found in such dedicated centers can include, for example, mentoring by administrators, faculty members and fellow students, as well as food assistance from organizations like the College and University Food Bank Alliance.

But sometimes the word about such opportunities does not reach students at the right time. As campus leaders, wherever we encounter students, we can help spread the word -- and potentially much sooner than the campus grapevine. It is often difficult to identify students’ needs, but we must create multiple opportunities for them to describe what they are encountering and what the university can provide to help them. We must make it easier for them to find staff and faculty members who are dedicated to listening and acting to improve such students’ chances of graduating.

Perhaps your students are parents, veterans or commuters from unusual distances. As a faculty member, you can mention resources you know are available or take a few minutes in class early in the term to ask whether students want to share information they found useful. Also, some programs, like one at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., cater to the burgeoning number of parents of nontraditional students. Such programs are not only tremendously useful in increasing persistence rates but can also attract a new population of students to your institution, students who otherwise could not have considered attending it.

Sharing practical information can also be symbolic of an understanding that our students take many paths to and through college. They need our support and consistent outreach if they are going to make it to graduation.

Acknowledge all the champions. The graduation stories of first-generation students reveal that they have experienced tension as well as triumph along the way. Having a student succeed in an arena in which her family has not ventured is a mixed experience for many people. We need to acknowledge that these are families or networks that have worked through -- or pushed through -- those tensions and that have continued to support students’ efforts toward academic achievement.

Usually, certain special champions have provided students timely encouragement and advice, even though they themselves did not attend college. I stumbled onto a way of saluting these mentors. In a seminar, I quoted one of my favorite American philosophers: my grandmother Simpson, who left her mountain school after eighth grade and spent the rest of her life wisely observing the world. Students immediately started talking about their grandmothers and other family members who had untraditional or informal education yet were so often hidden heroes of their graduation stories.

It’s important to recognize those supporters. First-generation students are often encouraged to see themselves as pioneers, overemphasizing the ways in which they are moving into situations that their families and community members find unfamiliar. Those students need to claim the strength of their many connections as they create networks for success. For some first-in-family students, affirming the sources they are listening to outside college makes it easier for them to trust advisers on campus. That is one reason why institutions like the University of California, Los Angeles, have resources and entire programs dedicated to parent and family involvement.

Celebrate all students’ strengths. Colleges and universities are increasingly emphasizing the idea of resilience and grit as important to success. While those traits may help students succeed in the academic environment and elsewhere, we cannot rely on such ideas to carry students to graduation.

Rather, we must turn the responsibility back onto ourselves -- campus leaders -- to provide resources and support mechanisms to help students navigate what can often be a biased and privileged system. This includes cultivating skills, grit and reliance included, that will benefit students long after their time on campus.

For example, at Franklin & Marshall College, scholars are developing “a model program that mobilizes these qualities and applies them to academic and professional settings,” after which the college plans to organize workshops to share lessons with the campus community.

Much of our current college narrative is about the middle-class norms and goals we associate with higher education. Again, the mirror must be turned onto us as faculty members and administrators and how we consciously and unconsciously perpetuate dated models that do not accurately reflect the diversity of our students. We can find support in that process through organizations such as the Center for Urban Education and their critical work on equity-mindedness for campus practitioners.

To continually examine and assess your own practices, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What can I change in my own work to make students feel heard and mattered?
  • Can I share more stories that would highlight the diversity among us and our various journeys?
  • Can I define success differently for each student?

The reality is that the process of completing a postsecondary degree can differ for each student, first generation or not, and their support networks. It is vital, therefore, that we provide students, and those who support them, many opportunities to celebrate their journeys and strengths, and affirm those whose hopes and risks saw them through to graduation. Let’s not just savor the tales of exceptional grit. Let’s make all their stories -- the trials as well as the triumphs -- part of a broad narrative about college success.

We must also recognize and embrace that it is the responsibility of higher education institutions to provide all students with the necessary supports that will enable their graduation. And as our student demographics change, we must all turn a critical eye to the structures that are thwarting access and reimagine what college will look like for our society in the years to come.

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