Effort helps first-generation students at U-M meet challenges


On the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, there are an estimated 6,500 students who are among the first generation in their families to attend college.

Often, these “first-gen” students face challenges unlike those typically faced by the majority of their classmates.

This spring, in an effort led by the first-gen students and their allies, the university is working to lower the barriers first-gens may experience without a family roadmap for the college experience, to help raise the profile of first-gen students with a new website, to provide new networking opportunities and special events, and to promote a one-day symposium focused on ensuring success among first-gen students.

“First-gen students provide our campus with phenomenal strengths, most notably with their proven ability to be entrepreneurs, boundary crossers and trailblazers,” said J. Greg Merritt, an adviser to first-gen students who serves as senior associate director of University Housing and director of the Coleman-Munger Fellows Program.

“They can teach their fellow students about tenacity and overcoming perceived obstacles. They also have the ability to teach others on the campus what it means to change the future trajectory of their family and oftentimes entire communities,” says Merritt, who was the first in his extended family to attend and graduate from college. Merritt is a co-founder with Dwight Lang of the First-Generation Student Group.

First-gen students account for approximately 13 percent of enrolled undergraduates and 18 percent of graduate students, which translates to nearly 3,700 and 2,800 students, respectively.

“Raising the profile of first-gen students is a key priority for these students,” says Terra Molengraff, a graduate student in education working as an intern in the Office of the Vice Provost for Equity, Inclusion, & Academic Affairs.

“One of the most frequently heard first-gen comments is a desire for the university to recognize and affirm their presence to a greater degree,” says Molengraff, herself a first-gen student from Muskegon.

Barry Checkoway, professor of social work, and urban planning says, “First-generation students are a distinct group with distinct educational needs. There is curricular content and there are pedagogies that relate well to first-generation students. So, in addition to providing supportive programs for first-generation students, there is need also to provide professional development for faculty.”

First-gen student Drew Walker will receive her Bachelor of Arts degree in international studies this spring. “Coming out of high school, I believed U-M would be best for me, would challenge me a lot. As I approach alumna status, I know I was right,” she said. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Away from campus, parents with little or no knowledge of college may or may not appreciate the value of a paper or research project that requires multiple hours, days or weeks. The idea that their student will have to go to college for more than four years to be a teacher can trigger consternation. First-gens sometimes report the need to “code switch” their use of language from academic to family-based in order to communicate effectively and not convey insult.

U-M’s inaugural First Generation website went live March 9. Its purpose is to help first-gen students locate the information they need to meet these challenges and thrive in every way at Michigan.

At the celebration of the website’s launch, Rob Sellers, vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs, greeted the first-gen students and thanked them for choosing U-M.

At the same event, Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Astronomy and director of the LSA Honors Program, shared keynote remarks, including:

“We have a shared identity, a kind of identity as first-gen students, as academic pioneers. This identity masks a whole world of experience. Every one of your stories is really unique, different from everyone else’s.

“Based on my own life experience, I have this hope for you that this really will be just the beginning for you, …  that you will find yourself as a pioneer, as a first-gen person over and over in your life, doing the things that no one around you has ever done before and that you will do.  Never hesitate to do something just because it’s unfamiliar to you. Doing this (first-gen at college) is a great entrée into being able to doing that.

“It is an extra burden to be the first person in your family, maybe in a whole group of families, to go forward and do this. There are challenges but also fantastic opportunities.

“Recognize that what you’re doing right now is part of a genuinely noble human dream for education, for all of humanity getting to a better place.

“The number-one resource you have is you. You are already somebody who really swam upstream to get here. Where you got to already is something many other people here couldn’t do.”

Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Astronomy and director of the LSA Honors Program delivers the keynote address at a recent event celebrating the launch of U-M’s website for first-gen students. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

The new First Generation website is a significant tool designed specifically to serve the needs of first-gen students. It contains links to programs and services available to U-M students, from academic support and financial aid to student services and diversity.

The campus life section addresses everything from U-M software apps to Magic Bus, the Michigan Daily, a UM-isms and acronym decoder, and information on Greek life, intercollegiate athletics, and arts and culture.

The site also addresses questions about who first-gens are, and presents stories of first-gen students, alumni, staff and faculty, including a new video of first-gens sharing their experiences. For more information, go to firstgen.studentlife.umich.edu/our-stories/. Other first-gens are encouraged to contribute their stories too at shareyourfirstgenstory@umich.edu.

In addition to the website, numerous first-gen focused resources, found at firstgen.studentlife.umich.edu/programs-services/, are offered by existing programs, such as the Comprehensive Studies Program, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives, Counseling and Psychological Services and others.

Ayana Robinson, a first-year student at the Medical School, shares her story about being a first-generation college student at a recent event to launch the new website. (Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

First-gen student-initiated groups include:

• First-Generation College Students @ Michigan — In 2007, a small team of first-gen undergraduates established one of the first student-led organizations of its type in the nation, the First-Generation College Students @ Michigan. A major goal is to offer students advice on a variety of resources and campus opportunities and to provide outreach to current and future FirstGen students.

• First Generation Support Network — The network consists of several dozen faculty, staff, administrators and other individuals who support first-gen students or are first-gens themselves.

• EnginFirst!— This student organization was created in fall 2015 by and for first-gens in the College of Engineering, though it now is open to all first-gen students on North Campus. (Currently on hiatus, EnginFirst! will reactivate in fall 2016.)

• FirstGen Graduate Student Get Togethers and Information Network — The Rackham School of Graduate Studies communicates relevant news about available resources and upcoming events with their first-gen students and brings them together at a welcome event each fall and to periodic events during the academic year.



  1. Ayana Robinson
    on March 22, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    Hi Ms. Greene. Thank you so much for covering these important events to improve the first-gen experience at UM. I wanted to let you know that I am the woman in the red jacket with the microphone in the picture captioned “A first-generation student shares her story at a recent event to launch the new website. (Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)”. My name is Ayana Robinson and I’m a first year student at the Medical School. I would appreciate it if you were able to put my name in the caption so that people who see it could contact me if they wanted to. Thank you very much.

    • Jamie Iseler
      on March 22, 2016 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks for the information, Ayana. The cutline has been edited accordingly.

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