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For Students in Their Family’s First Generation of College Attendees, York College Offers a Second Home

March 07, 2023
3 YCP Spartans holding up First-Gen proud t-shirts in front of WPAC.

Navigating college as the first family member to attend can be overwhelming. York College strives to reduce the stress while building community.

Being a first-generation college student, whose parents did not go on to higher education, can be a daunting experience. From filling out FAFSA financial aid forms to navigating a class schedule, dealing with feelings of inferiority to juggling family expectations back home, the complexities of college easily can overwhelm.

York College of Pennsylvania, where about 18% of students were first-generation in 2022, long has aimed to make the transition easier.

First-generation struggles

Adrienne Brenner, Behavioral Science Lecturer and adjunct faculty member, has taught a First Spartans First-Year Seminar for first-generation students for years and overseen numerous efforts to support them.

“There’s a lot of time management involved with first-generation college students,” she says. “They’re managing full-time college responsibilities but often have a tremendous amount of outside work they’re doing. In a lot of cases, they have tremendous responsibility for their families.”

Literary and Textual Studies major Madison Sweitzer ’23 (York, PA) experienced the frustrations of being a first-generation college student even before graduating high school. Not knowing how to apply for college, she made mistakes on her FAFSA and had to take a gap year after high school. After enrolling at York College, the transition was rough. She had no idea how to sign up for classes or balance her schedule. 

“I had a lot of shame about my parents not going to college because I felt like an outsider,” she says.

It took her a while to realize that her story was worth embracing, that there was nothing wrong with the fact that her parents did not go to college, and that she was writing a new story. By her junior year, she was ready to step out and get more involved on campus.

She joined the new Tri-Alpha Honor Society, a National Honor Society for first-generation students, and soon was elected President. For several months, she has led the Society’s efforts to help other such students smoothly transition to college.

First Gen Students Find Community

Professor Brenner carries on the same mission as she works to create a sense of pride for first-generation students. In 2021, she incorporated design-thinking workshops into her classes to explore ways to improve the well-being of those students. She wanted to ensure that first-generation students had a role in every decision.

She gathered faculty, staff, students, and alumni who had been first-generation students to discuss support strategies. From those discussions grew the First Spartans Advisory Board. Later, with the help of Brian Hazlett, Vice President for Enrollment Management, the Tri-Alpha Honor Society was established.

Alumna Victoria Romero ’22, who majored in Integrated Marketing Communications and minored in Spanish and Speech Communications, was the first alumni member of the Advisory Board and is still a member. As a first-generation college student and first-generation American, she knows the importance of being surrounded by a supportive community. She also knows that each first-generation college student’s needs are unique.

“There is a community of first-gen students here just like you, and you will find your way. Reach out, and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone,” she says.

Romero hopes more first-generation alumni will become mentors to York College students as they navigate the college experience.

A path to success

Driven by the tagline “Nothing about them without them,” Romero, Brenner, and the other Advisory Board members identified several faculty and staff who had been first-generation college students. They posted stickers and printed T-shirts to announce that they are First- Generation Proud. 

In November 2022, the College hosted a week of programming for first-generation students. Inductions into the Tri-Alpha Honor Society took place. Dr. Darris R. Means, Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke on campus.

The events recognized the accomplishments of first-generation students, and photos from the week captured them with signs stating why they came to York College.

Criminal Justice major Michelle Alarcon Hasing ’26 (Alexandria, VA) took part in a first-generation college student art show at Marketview Arts in York that week. Students who participated brought in objects that showcased their stories. Michelle submitted a photo of coffee beans. During every college break, she works alongside her mom at a coffee shop in Alexandria.

When Michelle came to York College, she was wary about leaving behind everything she knew—her beloved job of four years at the coffee shop, her family, her comfortable routine. But the small class sizes helped her adjust to her new environment and quickly build a new community.

“Don’t be afraid of the choices that you make,” Michelle says. “You need to get out of your comfort zone.”

Stepping into a new role

Dr. Kay McAdams agrees with that sentiment. A former first-generation college student who left her comfort zone for a career in academia, she has walked in her students’ shoes.

“College is bewildering,” she says.

Students must learn a whole new system and processes. When they don’t have family to walk through that process with them, it becomes more overwhelming.

Dr. McAdams’s outreach to first-generation students is not just about helping them to understand college but helping them become part of a community and celebrating their unique identity.

“It can be lonely being a first-generation college student if you don’t have people around you to talk about your experiences,” she says.

She also understands the financial pressures first-generation students might face. Many work more than 30 hours a week to support their education and their families. Dr. McAdams hopes to expand scholarship opportunities, especially for such basics as books and materials, for first-generation students.

First Year Seminar First-Generation Fellow Jada Guido ’23 (Newton, NJ) has found her role helping other first-generation students succeed incredibly rewarding. When Jada first came to York College, she didn’t feel that many of her fellow students understood her because of her first-generation college student status. She turned those frustrations into something positive by immersing herself in the community around her, becoming President of LAMBDA (a York College LGBTQIA+ organization), working at Marketview Arts, and co-founding the York College chapter of Delta Alpha Pi International Honors Society (DAPi), which recognizes the academic achievements of students with disabilities. She also became a member of the Autism Peer Mentor Program and is an initiate of the Tri-Alpha Honor Society.

“I hope people can see that success is not measured by doing everything entirely on your own,” she says. “Utilize support from those who love and care about your future.”