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First-generation students at University of California, Davis.
First-generation students at University of California, Davis. Credit: Elena Zukova, University of California

I stand in front of an auditorium of 300 students at a new student orientation, and half of them are raising their hands. I’ve just asked them a question: How many of you are the first in your family to attend college?

At first, the hands stagger up, tentatively. Then I ask them to look around and really take in the room. The arms extend higher. Surprised expressions give way to nods and smiles. I point out the “First Generation” t-shirt I’m wearing and let them know I was once just like them.

For a moment, the anonymous space of a college orientation auditorium becomes a community. Those beginning their higher education journey are linked to each other, and to one who has reached the other side.

Related: COLUMN: Counting DACA students

“You’re not alone,” I tell them. “You belong here.” It is a simple and powerful message – and one, which, the research tells us, can have an outsized impact in helping students succeed.

Today, earning a four-year college degree remains the surest path to moving individuals, from one generation to the next, to a higher socioeconomic status. Yet, according to a 2014 study, first-generation college students drop out and receive lower grades than do students who have at least one parent who has earned a four-year degree.

At Davis and across UC campuses, our numbers tell a different story: 45 percent of our students are first generation, and they succeed in high numbers. Still, with 14 percent fewer of them finishing their degrees in four years than our non-first gen students, there are gaps to close. (Editor’s note: A message from UC Davis Chancellor Gary May on DACA can be read here.)

Related: At a corporate giant where one-third of employees were first-generation college grads, staff tries to give back

First-generation students are likely to feel left out, and struggle to find their place on campus. They may find it challenging to understand campus bureaucracies and access college resources. They often don’t know how to select a major, and so end up struggling in class or changing their minds late and delaying graduation. They may be late to realize the importance of internships and research positions, key components of building the resumes they’ll need for future employment.

“Across UC’s 10 campuses, we’ve asked faculty who were first-generation college students to identify themselves and share their experiences. Almost 900 faculty across our 10 campuses have responded, including 380 at UC Davis.”

That’s where people like me come in. Across UC’s 10 campuses, we’ve asked faculty who were first-generation college students to identify themselves and share their experiences. Almost 900 faculty across our 10 campuses have responded, including 380 at UC Davis.

We are making ourselves visible to students by wearing bright t-shirts and buttons that identify us as first-gen college grads. We sport our “first-gen” badge in email signatures and we post it on our office doors. We are sharing our stories on social media and websites, and listing our names in a directory where students can find us by department. The message: If you’ve got a question about navigating college, we will help.

Related: What some colleges are quietly doing to help undocumented students

By connecting with our students, we let them know that we understand what it is like to figure out college without asking mom and dad. We relate to their sense that everyone but them understands how things work. Whether through the small gesture of identifying as first-generation in front of hundreds of students in class or the large gesture of mentoring a student through academic choices, UC first-generation faculty are making sure our first-gen students can connect to and benefit from our experiences.

Since launching this program last spring, I’ve been told by faculty nearing retirement that they have never previously told people on campus that they were the first in their families to go to college.

Many first-gen faculty saw their backgrounds as a demerit — something to hide from colleagues who might use it to question their capabilities. This has been one of the most surprising benefits of the program: where we sought to create community for students, we ended up also creating community and pride among faculty. As that pride moves from our faculty to our students, it multiples its positive effect.

Related: PODCAST: Faces of the Shadow Class

Certainly, this connection won’t, on its own, remove all the bumps from a first-generation student’s transition to college. Nor will it remove all achievement gaps. It will, however, help normalize the feeling of adjustment that every new student faces, but that first-gen students all too often ascribe to their own personal shortcomings. And that will lead to greater academic persistence, and success.

The University of California has a long history of serving as an engine of social mobility and economic growth for the state of California and the world. It’s then no surprise to find us with so many “firsts.”

By connecting yesterday’s with today’s through this powerful program, we can smooth the way for our first-gen students and for countless others who follow in their path.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Carolyn Thomas is vice provost, dean for undergraduate education and a professor of American Studies at University of California, Davis.

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