From the children of Mexican and Guyanese immigrants to Dreamers and Deans, Saint Peter’s University is filled with first-generation students who are ready to take on the world.
It is these students that we see walking down the Quad, or nowadays, in class through Zoom.
These first-gens might even be the deans registering us for classes or answering our academic questions.
First-generation students are all around us on campus, and we might not even recognize this.
The technical definition of a first-generation student is a student whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree.
According to Tracy Louisse Chacon, Saint Peter’s newly appointed Associate Dean of Academic Engagement and Student Success, in fall 2019, 57.8% of the incoming freshmen class identified as first-generation, and “we have a lot of students who fall into this category, but they do not necessarily know that that they do.”
Chacon explains that first-generation students might not have the same framework to successfully navigate college as students who can turn to their parents or legal guardians who already completed the college experience.
As a result, Chacon says that it is part of the university’s responsibility to support its first-generation students. She explains, “because they don’t necessarily have someone in their family as a resource, the University - its faculty, staff and administration - becomes that resource for them in order to help them succeed and accomplish their personal and professional goals.”
Saint Peter’s was recognized as a first-generation forward institution by the Center for First-generation Student Success of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) in April of 2020.
NASPA is a professional organization for student affairs, and Chacon says that although the university already offers all of its students a number of resources and opportunities, this is specifically for the first-generation population.
“This designation is a way for us to gain resources and to be a part of a larger network that deals specifically with the success of our first-gen students,” Chacon explained.
Saint Peter’s has been designated a first-generation forward institution, but what does it actually mean to be first-generation at Saint Peter’s?
This question may mean different things to different people, but to Saint Peter’s students and administrators, it means that the sacrifices their families have made have come full circle.
Tracy Parson is new to Saint Peter’s as a member of the Class of 2024 and an accounting major.
Parson’s parents came to the United States from Guyana, and to her, being a first-generation student gives her the chance to succeed in a way that honors her parents’ hard work.
“I am the eldest daughter of immigrants. Entering the country and settling was hard enough; college at the time was not an option for either of them,” Parson said. “With our country evolving and the only way to obtain a decent job is through a degree, I am determined to make that happen in 2024 when I graduate.”
Senior accounting major Adrista Ramirez echoes Parson’s sentiments. Ramirez was raised as the eldest sibling in a single-family home. To her, being first-generation means setting an example for her younger siblings, making her mother proud and never settling for less. Ramirez, however, also recognizes the challenges and pressures that come from being the first to do it.
She emphasizes seeing first-generation students pushing themselves to the limit, but she explained that students often place a high level of pressure on themselves in order to become successful.
“We are persistent and resilient. We will not stop no matter what challenges are thrown our way. This group also brings a sense of comfort- comfort in knowing you are not in this alone,” she said.
Dean Weidong Zhu, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a first-generation student himself, reiterates Ramirez’s point about resiliency and support.
Although Dean Zhu says that his experience as a first-generation student in China may not completely be transferable to the United States, he remembers how he was glad to have similar people around him at the time.
“There was great friendship and we carried each other through the college years. Years later when I look back, I really cherish that period of time. It helped form my world view and my core values,” he said.
While Ramirez and Dean Zhu believe first-generation students bring inspiration and richness of experiences to campus, junior Maria Hernandez Sanchez emphasizes dedication and responsibility.
To her, this stems from her goal to make her family in the United States and Mexico proud.
When asked how Saint Peter’s fits into this goal, Sanchez responded that its small size and diverse student body ensures that she gets the support and assistance she needs to succeed.
“As a Dreamer, I have come across difficulties with financial aid due to my status or help in what programs are right for me. In this sense, Saint Peter's has been helpful as faculty like Dr. Ayala have been there to answer questions and provide a lending hand,” she explained.
Jennifer Moranchel, a senior, is one student who was not exactly sure if she was a first-generation student because her older sister went to college.
Although she did not explicitly label herself as first-generation previously, it has always meant so much to her and her family because she said “my parents never got the opportunity to go to high school, and college was not even in the picture for them.”
Moranchel’s experience also contrasts some of the experiences of other first-gens because of the fact that she was not sure if she was first-generation and did not indicate that when applying for the university.
For example, Moranchel explained that she has not been “provided with extra resources or guidance.”
Parson, however, pointed out that “I received emails of internship workshops and grants for first-generation.”
This contrast echoes Chacon’s earlier point that some students do not know that they fall into the category of first-generation.
Chacon hopes that bringing the new first-generation honor society, Alpha Alpha Alpha, to campus, as well as continuing to network with other first-generation forward institutions, will help highlight Saint Peter’s first-gens and provide more support for the students.
She explained that “while we have all of these networks and resources as far as supporting our students and advocating for them, we don’t have a unified area. Right now we have a task force that we developed for our first-gen students and how to move them forward.”
With the help of students, the taskforce that she is a part of will continue to create a robust program centered on first-generation students and student involvement.
This will also help focus attention on the diversity of Saint Peter’s in a broader sense.
As Dean Zhu put it, “first generation students bring diversity to campus - the kind of diversity that is often overlooked: academic background, home support, students working to support family, and many more.”
As senior first-generation students like Ramirez, one of the newly inducted 78 members of Alpha Alpha Alpha (one of whom was a faculty member), get ready to cross the finish line, she says that she is dedicated to continuing to set the path for her future and making her family proud.
“Our level of grit, ambition, and determination are unmatched,” she said.