Program for first-generation college students softens transition

Everyone in Samantha Yakas’ family picked up a trade after high school. She had higher ambitions.

Yakas took Advanced Placement courses to get ahead, and in her first few years of college, she took on internships, part-time jobs and even a teaching assistantship. Now a junior, she hopes to attend law school.

But as a first-generation student, her jump to GW was difficult.

“Everything is just overwhelming. You have no idea what to expect,” Yakas said. “I really had no one to help me.”

The University will launch its first mentor program for first-generation students next fall, connecting students like Yakas to incoming freshmen whose parents did not attend college. It is the brainchild of a team of professors who were once first-generation college students themselves as well as Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt.

The pilot group next year will include about a dozen freshmen and mentors, who will earn a small stipend from an anonymous donor who was once a first-generation GW student, Barratt said. She declined to provide the total.

Students will learn about the program at Colonial Inauguration, she said.

Yakas said the support will be crucial for students who may have different goals than their peers who come from more affluent backgrounds.

“My counselor told me to have fun. I come from a working-class family where my dad works 60 hours a week,” Yakas said. “I can’t go back to him and be like, ‘I’m exploring, Dad.’ We don’t have time for that.”

But pairing up first-generation students will be tough for the Columbian College, because the University does not track students who indicated on their applications that they were the first in their families.

Cheryl Beil, associate provost for academic planning and assessment, said the only information GW has about the population comes from a 2011 survey that was distributed as part of a national study by a research institute out of the University of California Los Angeles. That survey showed that 5 percent of GW students were first-generation.

Starting last semester, the group of Columbian College faculty also began holding dinners with first-generation students, discussing the tough decisions students face at college, like declaring a major and filling out complex financial aid forms.

It was a fluke that Yakas found out about the group from her English professor Antonio Lopez. She happened to tell him during office hours that she was a first-generation college student, opening the way for him to include her in the small group.

Barratt, who is in the last year of her deanship, said she hopes the program will leave a lasting impact on students and the college she has run for the last five years.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Barratt said. “Once we began down this path, hearing some of the personal stories of the students made it that much more important that we do what we can.”

She said the issue is also personal. When Barratt’s husband’s older sister went to college, she was the first in the family – and was barely given enough money for food while she was attending classes.

“They just didn’t know. And we want to be sure these students are successful,” Barratt said.

Director of the Multicultural Student Services Center Michael Tapscott said he has recently worked with the Office of Financial Aid, which collects forms that show the education levels of students’ parents, to scope out the population. The Office of Institutional Research does not lift data about parents’ level of education from financial aid forms.

“We are always conscious of first-generation students. The challenge is finding out who they are,” Tapscott said. “It’s hard, because there’s no specific data that the University creates that I know of that says ‘I’m first-generation.’ ”

He said his office in particular has looked to help first-generation college students, who statistically tend to be minority students.

And while the Center for Student Engagement runs mentorship programs for niche populations like transfer students and veterans, director Tim Miller said the program is so small that it is not on his radar.

Both Tapscott and Miller were not involved in planning the mentorship program for first-generation college students in Columbian College.

Yakas said the University should do more to help students figure out how to pay for college, adding that first-generation students typically need aid. Members of her sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma, helped set her up with a paid internship at a law firm and connected her to scholarships, but she said there should be a support network for all students in her position.

The English and women’s studies double-major pays just a few thousand dollars each year to attend GW after financial aid. But she said the college costs put pressure on her working-class family, and many at the University don’t understand.

“It makes me feel bad going to college. I know they’d be really sad if I didn’t go. They’d feel like they had failed somehow, and they’re really proud that I do go,” Yakas said. “But at the same time, I’m putting such a financial burden on my family. It’s hard to come up with that money.”

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