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### Pioneering Fighters: Embracing the First-Generation Journey

March 3, 2024

An essay composed by the Vice President overseeing Student Development and Campus Life at Montclair for The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Editor’s Note: The subsequent essay was crafted by the Vice President managing Student Development and Campus Life and featured in The as a component of the Different Voices of Student Success initiative, backed by the Ascendium Education Group. ©2024 by Chronicle of Higher Education Inc.

Witnessing first-generation college students effectively navigating a campus setting never fails to impress me. While the families of first-gen students take pride in their daughters, sons, siblings, and grandchildren, their admiration and affection often do not translate into the ability to offer guidance and insights on handling the intricate realm of higher education. Speaking from the perspective of a first-generation college advocate who now holds a senior position at a sizable public university where over half of the students self-identify as first-generation, I purposefully use the term “warrior.” The collegiate journey many of us undertook at a time when first-gen students were unrecognized or unacknowledged resembled a battle; resilience, perseverance, and bravery were essential qualities that propelled some of us to triumph, while others had to concede.

Reflecting on my personal journey as the sole member of my immediate family to pursue and complete college education (my father acquired his GED post his military service, while my mother graduated from high school and pursued a career as a hairstylist), it strikes me as somewhat miraculous that I managed to graduate at all. My path was laden with hurdles, from selecting a college (I opted for a public university based on affordability) to navigating the financial aid application (a process that took me days to complete without parental assistance), to eventually being left alone on a campus teeming with 12,000 students (my parents did not engage in any orientation sessions as such sessions were non-existent for families during that era). Describing my state as overwhelmed would be an understatement.

Dawn Meza Soufleris

Those four years constituted a sequence of trial and error, missteps, and obstacles that frequently prompted me to question, “Do I truly belong here?” I lacked someone to consult regarding whether I should simply give up, return home, and seek employment in my hometown. Phrases like “first-generation” were not in vogue at that time. While I did encounter fellow students whose parents, akin to mine, lacked formal education, there were no support centers, communities, or even literature elucidating the essence of being the inaugural college-goer in one’s family. It was unexplored terrain, where concepts like “inclusion,” “belonging,” “student success,” “intrusive advising,” and “academic intervention” had not yet permeated.

Given the absence of cell phones during that period, my calls home occurred weekly, post 9 p.m. (to economize on long-distance charges), and typically revolved around inquiries like “How are you? We miss you. Are you eating?” — a routine that seemed fitting back then.

Recalling my interactions with my parents regarding my intended major (the university I attended permitted students to remain undeclared for their initial five semesters, a policy that, in hindsight, did not aid a first-gen student like me in honing in on a focus and purpose), my father’s enthusiastic response, devoid of a true understanding of the major’s implications, stands out. Ironically, I found myself making that identical call six more times. Yes, I cycled through seven different majors (not concurrently), sans guidance from an academic advisor or success mentor. (I never crossed paths with my advisor; I am uncertain if one was even assigned to me!) Transitioning between majors entailed nothing more than completing a carbon-copy form.

With each new major selection, I enrolled in a corresponding course, and upon realizing my lack of aptitude or genuine distaste for the subject, I would switch to a different major. Ultimately, my major (eventually settling on American history) was a default choice. History courses constituted a significant portion of my academic pursuits at the university. The registrar’s office secretary — with whom I became acquainted on a first-name basis due to my frequent major changes — offered me this advice, “Which courses have you excelled in and enjoyed? That should dictate your major, honey!”

Her counsel stood on par with any other guidance I had received since commencing my university tenure, so I embraced it and successfully graduated on schedule. Following such a convoluted trajectory in college, embarking on and pursuing a career could have been equally daunting. While transitioning into a history teaching role seemed like a natural progression, my experience as a student teacher left me unconvinced of its alignment with my calling. The pivotal moment that set me on the path to what is now a 33-year career in student affairs transpired when I encountered a mentor — a term that was alien to the lexicon of the 1980s at my university — in a moment I term as “the tap.”

Dawn Meza Soufleris is collegeDawn Meza Soufleris during college.

I applied for and secured a resident assistant position primarily due to my high level of social engagement and the allure of overseeing a residence-hall floor while receiving complimentary room and board. One day, a staff member approached me and expounded on his own journey in what was then dubbed “student personnel.”

Had it not been for his willingness to reach out, offer guidance, shed light on the career trajectory, and assist me in applying for graduate school and an assistantship (another unfamiliar term at that time), I would not be occupying my present role.

I share this anecdote because my undergraduate experience has not only fueled my zeal for students but also instilled a deep commitment to those blazing the trail as the first in their families to pursue higher education. It brings me personal and professional fulfillment to witness that students like me are now acknowledged in the realm of higher education. There exists a language, research, and resources geared towards aiding first-generation students as they navigate the terrain of college and university life.

Presently, more than ever, we recognize them, commemorate their achievements, and extend a warm welcome to their families at the table. I can attest that had my parents been invited to a family orientation to grasp how they could bolster my undergraduate journey, they would have participated with enthusiasm (and a plethora of queries!).

Had someone reassured me, “It is perfectly normal to feel out of place — you belong here! And you are not alone!” (a sentiment now recognized as “impostor syndrome”), my hours of anguish pondering my presence in college might have been fewer. I remain eternally grateful to my mentor for making a profound impact during a period of uncertainty.

Have we completely resolved the challenges confronting first-generation students? Regrettably, no. Many first-gen students grapple with an array of internal and external factors that impede their academic success, encompassing familial and financial constraints, social hurdles, and academic impediments.

Impostor syndrome persists. However, the transformation since the 1980s lies in the recognition, support, and acknowledgment extended to first-gen students. Our responsibility as staff and faculty members is to comprehend their struggles, celebrate their triumphs, and extend a helping hand when we notice a student grappling to find their path — “the tap.”

Throughout the academic year, I proudly sport my “FIRST GEN” pin on campus. I aim to convey to students that they are not alone and that many of us, across all echelons on campus, share a common bond — that we, too, were pioneers in our families to embark on a collegiate journey and secure a degree. I derive immense satisfaction when students spot my pin and exclaim,

A senior yearbook photo of Dawn Meza Soufleris

“You were a first-gen student? Unbelievable!” This interaction furnishes me with the opportunity to narrate my story and assure them that the perseverance and resilience first-generation students bring to campus are the very qualities that will propel them towards graduation and success. I share a chuckle with my first-gen students when I disclose that, yes, I am still repaying student loans (doctoral degrees seldom come free), and that my 84-year-old father remains oblivious to my professional endeavors. He frequently informs his acquaintances that I preside over a prestigious university, despite my attempts to clarify that I hold a vice president position and elucidate my job responsibilities.

These dialogues with students typically culminate in a hug or handshake and a promise of a return visit. During these moments, I underscore the significance of remembering their roots.

I implore them to pay it forward, particularly when their personal narratives have the power to embolden others. In essence, extend a tap on the shoulder to someone in the future and affirm, “I have faith in you!”

The self-assurance and encouragement first-generation college warriors can instill in others can serve as pivotal moments that struggling students may require as they progress on their academic and professional voyage in higher education.

I desire students to recognize that they are not isolated and that many of us, spanning various roles on campus, share a common thread — that we, too, were pioneers in our families to pursue higher education and secure a degree.