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From our high schools to our colleges: First-generation in North Carolina

This week, EducationNC is spotlighting perspectives from those we are thankful for: our students and our educators. Follow along as we share the stories of first-generation college students and five educators at Catawba Valley Community College.

College campuses across the nation participated in the second annual First-Generation College Celebration on Nov. 8, honoring students working toward becoming the first-in-family to earn four-year college degrees.

The second annual event, sponsored by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation Student Success, engaged students in rallies, lectures, and conversations regarding the successes and challenges facing first-generation students.

At North Carolina State University, the New Students Programs and TRiO, a federal program designed to support underrepresented student populations, took part in the celebration by inviting first-generation students to participate in painting a mural in the Free Expression Tunnel. Approximately 85 students left their mark on the historic tunnel, a well-known campus landmark and tribute to the First Amendment.

Students gather around a wall during the First-Generation Celebration at NC State’s Free Expression Tunnel.

Courtney Simpson, senior director of NCSU TRiO, explained that the goal of the event was to promote the first-generation college student experience and build a sense of pride and community among students and staff.

She emphasized that too often, first-generation students are looked at with a deficit-based perspective; people tend to focus on what these students may not have as they enter the postsecondary experience. Within the TRiO and New Students Programs, however, Simpson and her staff seek to affirm the unique strengths and skills that first-generation students bring to college campuses.

Jasmine James, a junior psychology major and McNair Scholar, participated in the mural painting celebration. A first-generation college student herself, James explained the challenge of navigating the college experience without the advantage of having parents equipped with the knowledge to guide her through the process.

“Being a first-generation college student, I couldn’t go home and talk to family for advice,” James explained. She pointed out that the TRiO program has been a vital support in that regard, connecting her to job and scholarship opportunities while helping her find community on campus at events such as Thursday’s celebration.

Students add their hand prints to the wall during the First-Generation Celebration at NC State’s Free Expression Tunnel.

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro hosted its own series of events titled “First G at the G.” A week of conversations and informal discussions culminated Thursday when Provost Dana Dunn (a first-generation graduate) delivered a keynote address. The celebrations honored the college’s 168 first-generation students, a number reported by UNCG’s own division of TRiO Support Services.

Though individual campuses offer enrollment data on first-generation students, the University of North Carolina system does not have existing reports summarizing first-generation trends across its 17 campuses. Per its Office on Data and Analytics, no system-wide data is collected using a standard definition of first-generation. While the term most commonly denotes a student that does not have a biological parent with a four-year degree, that is not always the case.

At institutes of higher education across the country, the problem of defining first-generation is endemic; it has created a scenario in which an individual school’s first-generation population can comprise 22 or 77 percent of total enrollment, depending on one of eight potential definitions.

The Center for College Student Success highlights the issue with this discrepancy:

Because identification as a first-generation college student is most often self-reported in the matriculation process, there are inherent gaps in the data. Moreover, by not having a definition, it is nearly impossible for an institution to identify these students, track their academic and co-curricular progress, pinpoint needs for early intervention, highlight successes, measure critically important learning outcomes, and benchmark against other institutions and national data sets.

A lack of reliable data provides little guidance to universities on how best to support already vulnerable members of their student population. While events like the First-Generation College Celebration offer students a forum to build community and support networks, many first-generation students face challenges less frequently experienced by peers with familial histories of success in higher education.

Registering for courses, purchasing textbooks, approaching professors, identifying and accessing campus resources — such tasks challenge first-generation students, who, as a collective body, self-report lower levels of resiliency and social comfort than their classmates.

The students, however, deserve this platform to explain those challenges, share their successes, and define for themselves what it means to be first-generation. Over the course of this week, teachers of EducationNC’s EdAmbassador initiative are highlighting their former students’ narratives — narratives that challenge the idea that background and school preparation dictates mindset and future outcomes for North Carolina’s first-generation college students.

As EdAmbassadors, we all agree that our former students are what we are most thankful for. Their stories, marked by resilience, tenacity, and grit, ground us in the needs of our state’s first-generation students and offer perspectives on how our public school system can evolve to meet them.

Greg Asciutto

Formally trained in digital journalism, Greg Asciutto teaches and manages English department operations at Garinger High School in Charlotte. Outside of the classroom, Asciutto works in the field of poverty alleviation, specifically as it intersects with public mental health and homelessness. As a North Carolina native, his vision is to build regional partnerships that foster economic opportunities for local youth and their families.

Jacey Macdonald

Jacey Macdonald currently teaches seventh grade Language Arts in Raleigh. Originally from Minnesota, she moved to North Carolina in 2013 and began teaching in Edgecombe County in eastern North Carolina. Over the last six years, Macdonald has taught sixth, seventh, and eighth grade Language Arts, Social Studies, and Global Studies courses and has made North Carolina her home. She has a passion for integrating global learning across curricula and for working to create equitable educational experiences for all children. Macdonald currently serves as a UNC World View Fellow and is a member of the EdAmbassador team.

Ana Cunningham

In 2012, Ana Cunningham began to teach high school English at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology. Since then, her love for her students and the passionate drive to ensure they receive the most enriched and enlivened education has only grown. In six years, students have become her family, inspiration, and her hope that the world can be a better place. Cunningham is a staunch advocate that students must gain the cultural capital necessary to leverage their stories to all realms of society to ensure that decisions that impact them and their families do not happen in isolation.