When Jessica Robertson (Col ’16, Educ ’20) was growing up in Amherst County, Virginia, her parents encouraged her to pursue college. They wanted a more stable future for her than they had experienced themselves without college degrees: earning a living through farming, hairstyling and small contracting jobs.

And so began the college application process. Robertson’s house supported only spotty cellphone service (maybe two bars, she says) in one room. Plus dial-up internet (“which was awful”). So she would drive off the mountain and down into town to make phone calls and fill out applications at the local library.

The process was as much of a mystery to Robertson’s parents as it was to her, especially when it came to financial aid. “Once they got their tax forms,” Robertson says, “they just gave them to me, and it was like, ‘Here you go. Try to figure it out.’”

She would have been completely on her own had not her best friend’s parents stepped in as surrogates to help her work the puzzle of financing a college education.

Robertson is one of the 8 percent of current UVA students known, in higher-ed parlance, as “first-generation”—those without the benefit of at least one parent who completed a four-year college degree. The proportion is slightly higher for the current first-year class: 11 percent. And it’s greater still at UVA’s College at Wise in southwest Virginia, where first-gens make up 37 percent of the first-year student population.

Colleges across the country over the past several years have increased the priority of first-generation enrollment. Supporting that population has also become more resonant at Virginia this year with the arrival of President James E. Ryan (Law ’92), a first-generation graduate himself who is expected to give the issue prominence in his forthcoming strategic plan. Within his first few months in office, Ryan convened a working group to analyze ways to attract first-gens to UVA and help them succeed once they get here.

“Attending college changed my life and opened doors for me that I never even knew existed,” Ryan wrote in response to emailed questions for this story.

Expanding the ranks of college-educated families aligns squarely with the mission of public higher education. In addition, first-gen students bring “grit, ambition, a track record of beating the odds, and fresh viewpoints that enhance the broader academic community,” according to a 2018 report from the Center for First-generation Student Success, produced by an association of student affairs administrators.

“It’s part of the responsibility we have to serve the Commonwealth and beyond, but it’s also the right thing to do,” Ryan says. “It’s also a smart thing to do because it means we are looking as broadly as we can for talented students.”

A different experience

By virtue of being in their families’ college-going first wave, first-gens lack the advantage of “college knowledge” that other students can receive from their parents to help ease the journey: crucial social capital such as the importance of networking and how to navigate the university world. They’re also more likely to be low-income or members of under-represented minorities. Fifty-eight percent of UVA first-gens are low-income, minority or both.

In Robertson’s case, in addition to being first-gen, she also carried the identities of low-income and transfer student. After two years at a community college, she arrived on Grounds experiencing, she says, “a little bit of a shock” to realize how different she was from most other students. She’d missed the bonding first-year experience, with all its traditions; she found herself unable to join in many social activities because of the costs; and she faced a growing disconnect at home as her university world expanded with new ideas to which her parents couldn’t relate.

Still, Robertson went on to graduate, begin a master’s program and accept a job as development officer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Viviana Rosas (Col ’21) admits to having felt that same sense of initial “otherness.” Born in Peru, she moved with her family to the United States when she was 3. At UVA, she at first felt intimidated by friends whose parents had multiple degrees. “Their parents come with connections,” Rosas says. “I felt like I wasn’t [on] the same playing field.”

She would ask herself, “What am I even doing here?” And when she talked with her parents about her confusing emotions, “they wouldn’t really understand.”

Viviana Rosas
Viviana Rosas would say to other first-gen students: You’re just as talented as the person next to you, so … get over the fear and go for it.”

University Guide Austin Widner (Col ’19) felt survivor guilt for being one of the lucky ones who made it out of his Appalachian community to pursue a four-year degree. Yet here at UVA, he’s considered disadvantaged because of that heritage, he says, which initially left him feeling “too good for home, and not good enough for here.”

Measuring success

The conventional starting point for measuring first-gen success is graduation rates. As might be expected, the more selective the school—accepting only those at the top of their graduating classes—the higher its graduation rate. And UVA is as selective with first-gens as with any other category. “They are not getting admitted solely because they are a first-generation student,” says Gregory Roberts (Darden ’17), dean of undergraduate admission. “We admit students based on merit, period.”

It’s little surprise, then, that UVA’s first-gen graduation rate is 84 percent, more than double the national average for all college students. On the other hand, that’s several points lower than the 90-percent rate for UVA’s students who are continuing-gen—the shorthand for those from college-educated families.

Austin Widner
Austin Widner describes being caught between two worlds, initially feeling “too good for home, and not good enough for here.”

A successful college experience, however, encompasses more than simply making it across the finish line, especially when it comes to positioning a student to thrive afterward. First-generation students report significantly lower participation in what are called high-impact educational experiences, such as capstone projects, major research, internships, honors programs and study abroad, according to the 2016 Student Experience in the Research University survey. Only 49 percent of UVA first-gen students participate in at least one of those programs, compared with 62 percent of their continuing-gen peers.

Some miss out on these experiences due to finances, others simply because their world—and that of their parents—has never included such expectations. Whatever the reason, the lack of these extra-educational experiences puts first-gen students at a deficit to their peers in the job market. So the sense of coming from behind never ceases.

That same SERU study also revealed gaps between first-gen and continuing-gen students when asked if they agree with such statements as “I feel that I belong at the University of Virginia” and “I feel valued as an individual at this campus.”

First-gen affirmations of those propositions are lowest during fourth year, according to Josipa Roksa, professor of sociology and senior adviser for academic programs in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.

Though first-gen students may have noticed all along that other students had more family support for career connections and general advice, Roksa says, it seems that the approach of graduation “just heightens the awareness … of those gaps.”

The 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index offers another important measure: the perception of thriving after college. UVA grads rate themselves higher than the national average in all five assessments of well-being (physical, social, financial, community and purpose), yet UVA first-gens still fall behind their continuing-gen counterparts.

In regard to financial well-being, for example, the national average of graduates who report success is 32 percent. UVA first-gen grads beat that with a 36-percent average, but it’s significantly below the 48-percent average for UVA continuing-gen graduates.

“There are gaps in experience across the board,” Roksa says. “The moral imperative for us as a public institution is to eliminate those gaps. It is the right thing to do. As a public institution, we ought to serve as a vehicle of mobility and opportunity.”

Growing effort

For years, help for UVA’s first-gen students usually came by way of initiatives aimed at other identities they might also claim: low-income, transfer student, under-represented minority. One significant initiative was the 2004 launch of UVA’s comprehensive financial aid program, AccessUVA. Admissions dean Roberts calls it a “turning point” for the University’s commitment to diversity of all types.

A second milestone was the Virginia College Advising Corps, founded in 2005. The program places college advisers in high-need high schools across the Commonwealth for two-year stints, to help foster a greater college-going culture. When a student succeeds in college, says Margaret Feldman (Col ’12), a former VCAC adviser, “it’s changing the trajectory of their whole family’s lives.” The ripples of greater financial stability touch parents, siblings and future children.

Over the years, students have launched efforts of their own. Widner, the University Guide, founded Friends of Appalachia to encourage similarly situated students from his home region to pursue their college dreams. Joshua Farris (Educ ’19) and Ellie Brasacchio (Col ’20) are coordinating this year’s Alliance for the Low-Income and First-Generation Narrative (AL1GN) conference in March at UVA. Last year’s event, held at George Washington University, included sessions on such topics as “Breaking the Professor and Student Barrier” and “Imposter Syndrome.”

Support from first-gen faculty for first-gen students is “through the roof.”

Many UVA faculty and staff have stepped up as well, especially those who were first-generation themselves. And more and more UVA units and affiliates have been developing first-generation programming. The Alumni Association, for example, is looking into ways to connect prospective and current first-gen students with alumni, especially first-gen alumni.

The McIntire School of Commerce, which admits students in their third year, launched its Commerce Cohort in fall 2018 to mentor and develop first-years interested in the undergraduate business program who might benefit from extra support. More than half the group are first-generation students.

In 2016, the Office of the Dean of Students hired Shaka Sydnor (Educ ’25) as an assistant dean to give special attention to first-gen student support. “By no means do I want to take over the good work that the College is doing or that the [Engineering] School is doing,” Sydnor says, “or take over the things that the career center is doing. It’s rather just being a conduit to get students connected with those folks.”

Sydnor also launched Hoos First to help first-gen students connect and build a community, supported by practical workshops and social gatherings sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Students. He hopes for Hoos First to become completely student-led.

During her presidency, Teresa A. Sullivan had made a concerted push to raise awareness of first-gen dynamics. As a result, the provost’s office created a website that prompted more than 225 first-generation faculty members to come forward. Sydnor hopes to take that one step further and encourage faculty-student mentoring. He says that support from first-gen faculty is “through the roof.”

Ken White (Nurs ’13), associate dean of the School of Nursing, has a personal stake in mentoring: He was a first-gen graduate himself, so he was more than willing to serve in that role when approached by first-gen Ph.D. nursing student Franklin Hickey (Grad ’18).

Hickey remembers White pushing and challenging him, but also pointing out the best he saw in him. Hickey says he changed his entire research focus after White heard him speaking about a different topic, pulled him to the side and pointed out, “You light up when you [talk about] that.”

Even though Hickey has since graduated from UVA, White considers the relationship one for life, just as he does all his mentoring relationships. “I expect him now to do the same thing for someone else,” White says.

Setting the stage

One theme that emerged from the fall’s first-gen working group was a need to scale up all these successful high-touch, high-impact opportunities and weave them into a full-orbed approach. Says Katie Densberger, director of Total Advising at UVA’s Georges Student Center, “We have a bunch of different hands on different parts of the first-gen elephant.”

A more comprehensive approach may emerge by the end of the semester. That’s when Ryan will present the Board of Visitors with a draft strategic plan, expected to include recommendations and a timeline for advancing UVA’s commitment to first-generation students.

“There’s lots of goodwill, there’s lots of enthusiasm, there’s a lot of energy around these questions,” says Roksa, the sociology professor who works with the provost’s office. “I think we can be a leader in developing a coordinated, integrated, four-year approach.”

Adds Christian West (Col ’09, Educ ’17, ’20), a first-gen doctoral student in higher ed and former assistant dean of admissions at the McIntire School: “When we build something that we know is accessible and can support the most marginalized or most vulnerable students, everyone benefits.”

Diane J. McDougall is senior editor of Virginia Magazine.