November 8 is the first annual First-Generation College Celebration. The national event recognizes the anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965, and honors the achievements of first-generation students.
Around 30 percent of college and university students are the first in their family to pursue higher education. Research says first-generation students are significantly less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than their non-first-generation peers.
Michael Wade, is the associate director of Student Educational Opportunity, a department at the University of Wyoming that’s working to close the achievement gap for first-generation students. The son of a Wyoming coal miner, Wade was the first in his family to attend college. He said, today, the transition for first-generation students can still be challenging.
“It’s completely foreign. The language is different. The customs. The unwritten rules. You don’t even know what you don’t know as a first-generation student,” said Wade. “So you step into that world and you are taking a huge leap, right? Out on your own. And I think that’s why it’s important to support those students so you can break down those barriers.”
Wade said efforts at UW to support first-generation students are funded by federal programs that came out of The Higher Education Act of 1965, which was signed into law on November 8 by President Lyndon Johnson. Wade and his staff are spending the day tabling in the student union to draw attention to the positive of impacts of these programs and to celebrate the students themselves.
Taylar Stagner is a first-generation student in her senior year with plans to go on to pursue a PhD. But she said when she started at UW she felt alienated from academic culture because it was so different from the ranching community she calls home. Without programs at UW that connected her with other first-generation students, she said she would have dropped out.
“Knowing that my situation isn’t atypical, that it happens to other people too, that means a lot,” said Stagner.
Stagner hopes that by taking time to celebrate the first generation students on UW’s campus that it will raise awareness, especially among professors, about the unique challenges she and her peers face.