Irene Ly: First-generation students should take advantage of new support system

We all know college can be stressful, and so can the ups and downs that come with it. Midterms are finally behind us and Thanksgiving is just around the corner – but then we still have to get through the horror of finals before winter break. However, for some of us, putting in that final push to the end of the semester is easier said than done.

GW has been making an effort to increase the socioeconomic and racial diversity of its student body, but we often forget one very important step. We put all of our focus on getting first-generation students into college, but then do little to keep students there. Getting into college for a first-generation student is hard, but it’s only an uphill battle from there – and staying long enough to graduate is even harder.

Two GW students are starting a student organization that focuses on advocacy, support and financial help for first-generation college students. It’s a great initiative that will hopefully help first-generation students stay on track and in school. First-generation students who lack a support system or are experiencing culture shock should jump at the chance to participate in this organization to help ease their transition into life at GW.

I’m a first-generation college student and came from a high school with many students in the same situation. My parents did what they could to help, but for the most part, the college application process was something through which many of my friends and I guided ourselves.

By giving these students a community of people in similar situations, this student organization will likely increase students’ chances of staying at and graduating from GW. Knowing there are others like you goes a long way in making you feel like you belong and can succeed. If such a group existed when I was a freshman, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken me so long to make the transition.

When I came into GW, I was hit with culture shock. Although the student body is quite diverse geographically, it was worlds away from my high school in Falls Church, Va., despite being just 20 minutes away. I spent my entire school life in a very racially and financially diverse public school system, and attended a high school where first-generation, minority students like myself were the majority.

Yet in my first semester here, I found myself sitting in a classroom where I was the only Asian-American. I also overheard my classmates talking about the private schools they went to, the fancy jobs their parents had or all the people in their family who have gone to GW. For the first time in my life, I felt completely out of place at my school.

Despite that, I have to admit I’m a pretty darn lucky person. Although my parents, who grew up in Vietnam, could not give me first-hand advice on college or the application process, they more than made up for it with their moral support and encouragement. They remain a major support system in my life and they’re always reminding me to try hard, but allow myself to breathe as well.

It took a while, but I have made some close friends at GW, and I found my place through writing and through joining a professional fraternity. Somewhere along the line, the pieces of my life finally started to fall together, and I have slowly gotten over my culture shock.

But others aren’t so lucky. A 2008 Pell Institute study found that low-income, first-generation students were nearly four times more likely – 26 percent compared to 7 percent – to leave higher education after the first year than students who had neither of those risk factors.

Another national data point is that only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree after six years, in comparison to 55 percent of their peers who do not fall into one of those categories.

It’s easy for these students to feel isolated. Their parents did not go to college, and while they can listen, they can’t quite empathize with the stresses of college life. Or, they may feel like they don’t share anything in common with classmates who come from college-educated families. On top of that, they are more likely to also spend significant time working or taking care of family obligations in order to enjoy their college experience.

If allowed to thrive, this student organization may make a huge difference for first-generation students struggling to acclimate into college life. And this is one way that GW can not only boost, but also maintain, its diversity.

Irene Ly, a sophomore majoring in psychology, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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