Transitioning to Graduate Life: First-Generation Students

Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS initiative helps students succeed in graduate school

From left, Maria Duran, Leslie Adams and Jennifer Rangel are all first-generation graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill.
From left, Maria Duran, Leslie Adams and Jennifer Rangel are all first-generation graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In spring 2016, Jennifer Rangel knew she was about to make a life-altering decision: pursuing a graduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As the first in her family to attend college, and now, a graduate program, Rangel felt apprehensive.

“Being the first is always the hardest thing because you have limited resources,” said Rangel, who is now a master’s student in city and regional planning. “It’s not like you can call home and ask for advice or suggestions – they don’t know.”

To provide resources and community for first-generation graduate students like Rangel, The Graduate School incorporated the Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS initiative into the Diversity and Student Success program. These students’ parents or guardians have not earned a master’s or doctoral degree, and in many cases the students were also the first to attend college. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office of Undergraduate Retention supports first-generation undergraduates through the Carolina Firsts program.

“First-generation students are among the populations that are at risk of not completing an advanced degree, or even pursuing graduate school at all,” said Maria Dykema Erb, co-director of The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success program. That’s why The Graduate School has broadly defined diversity to help students from all different backgrounds who may encounter barriers to completing their degrees, she added.

Prospective students applying for graduate admission in 2018 will be able to indicate the highest level of education completed by their parents or guardians on their applications.

Erb and first-generation student leaders advocated for this change. “This will allow us to be able to proactively reach out to the students who fall within the definition of a first-generation graduate student and let them know about the initiative before they even enroll,” she said.

Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS offers programing to help students learn everything from professional development to forming mentoring relationships. Social events are also included to help build community for the students.

Yesenia Merino and Samuel Baxter are first-generation doctoral students.
Yesenia Merino and Samuel Baxter are first-generation doctoral students.

Yesenia Merino and Leslie Adams, doctoral students in health behavior, started forming the initiative in fall 2014. Both were 2015-16 Leadership Development Scholars, a program sponsored by The Graduate School to provide student leaders with skills and experiences that also support the professional development of their peers.

The initiative held its first events in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. “Our plan from the beginning was to expand it to the entire university because we realized it wasn’t just an issue of public health students but an issue more broadly,” Merino said.

Adams said her transition into her master’s and doctoral program was not seamless.

“Graduate school was, for me, the first time I’ve felt I was on my own,” she said. “That made for a very clunky transition with lots of mistakes and errors along the way.”

Adams said she was fortunate to have a great adviser coming into her program, but expanding her network beyond that was challenging.

“A huge chunk of graduate school success is networking, and it took me some time to learn how to connect with faculty on a level beyond assignments and grades.”

Samuel Baxter, a third-year doctoral student in health policy and management, said the initiative helped provide support for insecurities, mental obstacles and gaps that he didn’t know existed.

“It helped me embrace the fact that I am the first in my family,” he said. “It gave me a community to be a part of that understands that experience.”

Fellow first-generation graduate student Maria Duran is in the fifth year of her doctoral program in English and comparative literature.

“I’ve worked in groups that were student-run and they’re great, but they can also be a burden [to maintain] at a certain point and when that happens, they tend to fall apart,” she said. “The fact that The Graduate School is backing these kinds of initiatives is so important.”

Rangel was able to find people going through similar experiences through the initiative.
Rangel and fellow participants hope to pay it forward. She tells other first-generation graduate students: “Always be your own self-advocate. Don’t be ashamed to ask. If you’re sitting at the table, let your voice be heard, don’t wait for others to speak for you.”

Visit the Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS website to learn more.

By Lauren Houston and Christine Scalora for the Carolina Chronicle and the Graduate School