Being First

Perspectives from first-generation students about the things we do to help them feel like they belong and can succeed.

Cartoon of lost hiker
I’m lost! Well… Where are you going? I don’t know… – Cartoon by Fritz Ahlefeldt

First-generation college students face a compounding array of barriers and a unique set of challenges that hinder their ability to access, succeed in, and reach their full potential as creative and critical thinkers in higher education. First-generation students need help to feel that they belong, support to succeed academically, and encouragement to persist to graduation.

Working with NDSU TRIO Upward Bound allows me to see first-hand how powerful each of us can be in making a difference for these students. While programs like TRIO Upward Bound are vitally important, YOU also have the power to make a direct and individual impact.

While each first-generation student has their own unique story, below are perspectives from two NDSU undergraduate students who participated in the TRIO Upward Bound program. Their personal reflections demonstrate how much power small interactions have had to their feeling of belonging at NDSU and their hopes for success.

I Belong Here: Little Hints Go a Long Way.

Participating in Upward Bound allowed Hajira to immerse herself in the college experience in high school and to see herself as a university student. The Upward Bound summer bridge program – where she had the opportunity to take 7 credits of courses at NDSU the summer after her senior year – helped her be more confident her first fall semester. Once on campus, she became involved with student organizations – found friends, support, and a feeling of belonging. She is passionate about education and determined to earn her undergraduate degree.

When asked what has had the most impact on her success so far she responded “one person.” One instructor who before every class shared little tips and hints about college life. She notes that many first-generation students on campus don’t know where to go to buy books and supplies, how to use campus connection, or even feel comfortable asking for help. Reminders about upcoming assignments, best places to look for books, words of encouragement… these tiny tidbits add up.

So even if you think that something is (or should be) common knowledge – share it! Little hints go a long way.


quotation mark…even if you think that something is (or should be) common knowledge – share it!
Little hints go a long way.

Guidance = Success.

Yubin says that while the title of first-generation college student can be a heavy one, his experiences in Upward Bound gave him perspectives and methods to successfully complete high school and helped to increase his confidence about coming to NDSU.

When asked what at NDSU has had the most impact on his success so far, he said: “Instructors who have shared their guidance.” Especially getting multiple methods or ways of looking at or solving a problem, and even something as simple a reminder of a due date, are some of the small interactions that have made a big difference to his learning and his success.

So even if you think giving another perspective or reminder is redundant – share it!


quotation mark
…even if you think giving another perspective or reminder is redundant – share it!

Things to share
hiking boots on old bridge

How can faculty and staff from across campus help in encouraging students.

Sharing little things can remove huge barriers to first-generation college students at NDSU. Remember your ‘firsts’ as a new university student. What were some things that baffled you? What excited you? What little piece of advice, or small story, can you share today with your students?

  • Where to buy books – many students don’t even know where to get their books
  • Best places to get supplies – don’t take for granted that your student knows where to get the supplies you need for your class
  • Reminders about due dates – learning time management is important for students, share how you manage your time and give reminders for due dates in your class
  • We can all help to make sure each student successfully returns the next semester – reminders to meet with their advisor, when registration opens, where to go with questions
  • Encouragement: “You’ve got this;” “This might be hard now, but I believe you can do it;” “Don’t give up”
  • Permission, encouragement, and reminders to visit with you (first generations students may be hesitant to come and talk to you)
  • Resources available: counseling center; student health; ACE tutoring; Disability Services; food pantry. Many first generation students are facing challenges outside of the classroom – knowing that support is available is important.
  • Encourage a feeling of belonging: let students know “I’m glad you’re here;” let students know where to find student organizations and clubs (NDSU has over 300 organizations – LGBTQ programs; Bison student veterans; black collegiate women; and so many more!)
  • Your stories: what excites you about learning; things that you remember struggling with at University and how you dealt with challenges; if you were a first generation college student – share your story. Some words of wisdom might be just what a student needs.

In the comments below, tell us your personal experiences in guiding students. What little piece of advice, or small story, have you shared with your students?


Michelle PearsonMichelle Pearson was a first generation college student herself, and as academic coordinator of NDSU TRIO Upward Bound is passionate about helping students learn how to succeed academically, strive to reach their college goals, and thrive once they begin their college careers.

When not at Upward Bound, Michelle enjoys hiking in the mountains, playing cello, and baking vegan cookies. Academically she strives to be continuously learning and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in the educational leadership program at NDSU.

2 Replies to “Being First”

  1. Being the first is always hard!
    The difficulties first-generation college students going to meet are real problems that unfortunately I met myself as an international student.
    I am a quite “ceremonial” person, I believe there is always something special about the “first”. As the first ever Ph.D student in my whole family tree, there is a special power that motivates me whenever I think about it. I know it sounds a little weird, but to be honest…
    Thus, I believe it is important to make them feel that they are indeed special and belong to here, that they are doing something meaningful.
    I guess the questions at the end of the day is how to really understand their needs and connect to them. IT will be convenient if they come to seek guidance, yet we know that is not always the case. Should we be proactive on this matter?

    1. Thank you so much for your comments! And congratulations on being the first Ph.D. student in your family – what a wonderful and meaningful ‘first’!

      To your last point, I absolutely agree and think we should be proactive about understanding the diverse needs of first generation college students, reaching out to connect with them, and helping them feel welcome and that they belong here. To that proactive point, I would like to invite you – and everyone interested in joining the discussion – to attend the upcoming Access, Inclusion and Diversity Fair on October 22nd 2019 in the NDSU Memorial Union ballroom from 10:00am-3:00pm. TRIO Upward Bound will be hosting a discussion table (time tbd – schedules will be out soon) regarding first generation students and if you are available I would enjoy visiting with you more and having your share your story and perspectives.
      -Posted at the request of Michelle Pearson, author of this post.

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