A group of Ithaca College students has created a student organization this semester dedicated to first-generation college students on campus.
The organization, The First Generation Organization, is meant to be a place where students who are the first in their families to go to college can meet others experiencing the same struggles specific to the first-generation community. Another purpose of the group is to provide resources to first-generation students about navigating the college experience.
Opinion Editor Celisa Calacal spoke with two founding members of the group — senior and communications manager Omar Stoute and the campaign manager and administrator, sophomore Avery Santiago — about the organization’s mission, how being first-generation college students has impacted their college experiences and the distinctive struggles faced by first-generation students.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Celisa Calacal: What inspired you guys to start this organization?
Avery Santiago: What inspired me first was seeing Omar on a panel. I got invited by Elizabeth Bleicher to go to a first-gen panel, and she’s the director of the exploratory program, so she was like, “You know, you should stop on by.” … Then I see Omar as a student, so I’m like, “Wait. There’s students that do identify as first–gen.” So when I saw that, I was like, “OK, this is a possibility. I can link up with other students and maybe create something more out of this and take this to a whole other level.” So that’s how I got inspired, and I saw Omar telling his story, and I’m like, “This is really important.”
Omar Stoute: When someone presented to me the idea of First-Generation Students, I thought about it as something that was unifying in a time where the Ithaca landscape was very divisive. So I thought it was something that could bring the community together as a whole.
CC: What have your personal experiences been here as a first-generation student?
OS: For me in particular, it was just really hard to acclimate because I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about the struggles I was going through because they weren’t the same common struggles that I’m having struggling in my class — you go to a tutor for that. But who do you go to talk to when you don’t really understand the intangibles, like how to register, how many credits you need to take, what do you do about being homesick — things like that.
AS: Pretty much the same thing for me. So my mother didn’t even make it through high school. My father was in and out of my life. And coming to college, I knew that was always in my future. I knew that it was built into my brain, basically. So coming to college, yeah, I was excited, and it was a whole new world, and I’m the first in my family to go to college, but it didn’t tell me how hard it was going to be and what struggles I’m going to face. … I’m a little nervous, and I can’t go back to my mom and ask her, “Hey do you know Caribbean history? Do you know how the trans–Atlantic slave trade happened?” Like, my mom doesn’t know what that is; it’s new for her. So she’s on this journey with me. So it’s just been extremely hard, and I’m happy we have something like First Gen as our backbone — something we can rely on — and students can come together and share their stories and have this safe space for them.
CC: Do you guys think there should be more campus resources to help first-generation students?
AS: Definitely. That’s why, as of right now, we’re working with a lot of resources. For example, we’re working with Student Financial Services so we can have them come and do workshops for us and say listen, this is the difference between a subsidized and an unsubsidized loan, because honestly, I didn’t know what the hell the difference was. So just collaborating with different resources out there and bringing them in for first-gen students is just the beginning steps, but it means a lot for first-gen students.
CC: What do you guys think makes first-generation students’ experiences different from those whose families have gone to college?
OS: A lot of the times, they’re changing a narrative of their lives. So in terms of me, I have a lot of educated family members, but nobody went to college. … But now that I’ve gone to college, my little brother looked at me as, you know, I’m going to go to college too. And now he’s enrolled in college, you know what I mean? And for me, I didn’t have any help, but I literally call him once a month and say, “How you doing?” And he has tons of questions, and he has someone to answer the questions.
AS: When you see a student that their family has been to college — their mothers, their fathers, their grandfathers — they already got this system down pat. They already know what to do, what’s the deal and how to get through this college experience. For someone like me, basically, my mother didn’t get a high school diploma — she always says she graduated from the streets of Brooklyn. Me, I have to take on this experience by myself, and I don’t have that family member or that person in my life that I can ask for how was your college experience and how could it apply to mine. So for example, I have my nephews and my nieces, and they always ask me, “Where are you going? Why do you always have to leave?” I’m like, “Because I have to go to college.” So it’s good that they have actually have someone because my sisters never even went to college: They graduated high school, but that was it.
OS: Echoing off of Avery, it’s a unique school–home life balance there. So whatever you left at home might be a lot different — so there might be pressures coming from home. There might be a little bit of guilt. And it’s just a different psychological way of going through your education because you’re doing something that there is no precedent for in your life in a lot of cases. So yeah, I say the most unique thing would be the psychological pressures on being one of a kind and not knowing that there’s a thousand students here on campus just like you.