As Director of Parent and Family Relations, I have the opportunity and pleasure to collaborate with Rebeca Paz, who is known on campus as a valued resource, advocate and overall champion for first-generation students. While Rebeca is not new to K-State, she is leading a new endeavor for first-generation students and families.
PFA: Congratulations for launching the new Office of First-Generation Students! K-State’s land-grant mission offers students a pathway to success. How will having an office enhance our abilities to support first-generation students?
Rebeca: Yes, I’m very excited about this announcement. The generous support of the Suder Foundation has made our dream become a reality. The Office will serve as a model for universities across the country — informed and inspired through a unique partnership with the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Center for First Generation Student Success, another key program funded by the Suder Foundation.
K-State’s Office of First-Generation Students will serve as a central location to coordinate collaborative efforts across campus that focus on first-generation student success. Our goal is to support all first-generation students by connecting them to the multiple University resources while fostering a first-generation community. We hope that our partnerships and efforts will result in increased recruitment, retention and graduation rates of first-gen students.
PFA: With your experience leading initiatives for first-generation students at K-State, what do you find their primary needs to be when they start at K-State? How might these needs differ from a continuing-generation student?
Rebeca: First-gen students may need help understanding and navigating the University. Because their parents did not attend nor graduate from college, they are not familiar with the University process like continuing-generation students may be. As you know, K-State has outstanding and ample resources to support students from freshmen to senior year. First-gen students may not know where to go for help when needed, may be hesitant to ask for help, and may not be aware of the various University resources available to them.
PFA: Your new office is located within the University Success Center in Holton Hall. I imagine this location provides excellent opportunities to partner with other resource areas within the Division of Student Life. Tell us about some of the partnerships you have that help you provide support.
Rebeca: Yes, we are located in Holton 101, at the heart of the University Success Center. Our location is ideal to refer students to any or all of the campus partners. We hope that all first-gen students enroll in a K-State First class offering during their first year. Additionally, participating in the Academic Coaching Program would be a great resource to receive guidance and support throughout the four years at K-State. We know that seeking tutoring is the smart thing to do because it can make a difference of a letter grade, and students don’t need to be struggling in a class to seek tutoring. Many first-gen students may also qualify for Educational Supportive Services and/or the McNair Program. We want to send the message to students that being engaged with the University will help them succeed. Our goal is also to connect them to all Student Life resources as needed.
PFA: During presentations, I’ve heard you share that 25% of K-State’s undergraduate population are first-generation students. How would a first-gen student learn about the resources available in your office?
Rebeca: It is our hope that as the K-State community learns about our office, students can be referred to us. We are working quickly to launch our website before school starts. The site will include videos featuring stories from first-gen students and their parents.
PFA: If I’m a parent or family member of a first-generation student, what advice do you have for how I can best support my student?
Rebeca: My advice to a first-gen parent would be to listen, encourage and provide emotional support to their student. Parents share with us that they learn about college through their student and even though they may not understand college themselves, they witness their students’ personal growth and empowerment. Completing a college degree is an accomplishment for the whole family and parents should be proud.
If parents have any questions, they are welcome to call the Office of First-Generation Students, we would be happy to assist them. You can call us at (785) 532-6492. We have bilingual staff available to speak with Spanish-speaking parents as well.
PFA: What are some challenges a first-generation college student might face?
Rebeca: As I mentioned earlier, first-gen students may be hesitant to ask for help and may feel uneasy realizing that they don’t understand the complex organization of the university – which can be overwhelming. Research indicates that first-gen students are supported by their parents emotionally. However, one of their challenges is that their parents are not able to relate to the college experience. For example, a first-gen student who performs poorly on an exam may call home discouraged and ready to give up. The parents may think that the student should come home, and make the assumption that college is not for them. The same situation may play out differently for a continuing-generation student who calls home and receives encouragement to persevere and is given specific suggestions on strategies to improve or to connect with an office on campus.
First-generation students may also have financial barriers to afford their education; many of them work part time jobs while carrying full time loads in rigorous courses of study.
Most importantly, first-gen students have several strengths and enrich our campus community: they are pioneers for paving the way for the rest of their family members to attend college, they are resilient, possess intrinsic motivation and bring diversity to our campus.
Katie Gehring, senior from Madison, Kansas, dual-majoring in Human Development and Family Science and Spanish, shares her experience as a first-gen student. “Being a first-gen student means that often times you feel as though you have to tackle challenges on your own, but having an office gives the option to be guided along the way by people who understand what it’s like to be a first-generation student.” Katie indicated that the First Scholars Program, which is part of the new office, has been a huge part of her success at K-State. She would not have made it into her senior year as smoothly as she has without the support she received, she was given the correct information and the right tools to succeed with being the best student she could be. Katie completed a study abroad semester in Granada, Spain last spring.
PFA: During your time at K-State, you have advised a significant number of students. I bet you have lots of success stories to share. How do you define success when working with first-generation college students?
Rebeca: Success is not only measured through high academic achievement, but also through personal growth, developing self-efficacy, and demonstrating resilience-which is characteristic of first-gen students. The success stories are of those of students who don’t give up, learn from their experiences, take advantage of the University resources and pay it forward.
Through my work with first-gen students, I have watched students blossom and develop into critical thinkers and outstanding and inclusive leaders. We have several first-gen students who want to give back to the community and volunteer as peer mentors, ambassadors, and/or engage in community service. Several of our most effective student leaders on our campus are first-gen.
PFA: What is the best kept secret about the Office of First-Generation Students?
Rebeca: Not sure this should be a secret, but we are a small team of dedicated professionals who love working with first-gen students. We are invested in their academic and personal growth and success. We set the bar high for our first-gen students: we challenge them to do their best and get out of their comfort zone; and they exceed expectations.
PFA: Thank you for sharing information about the Office of First-Generation Students with parents and families. It’s always a pleasure to work with you, and learn more about how you are investing in student success.