BYU first generation college students prepare for graduation celebration

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Assistant professor Chelsea Romney spoke to first generation college students on March 29 at their club night. Students learned valuable skills and made connections with friends who are also first generation college students. (Joe Wirthlin)

The second annual First Generation College Student graduation celebration sold out for graduates and their guests.

According to BYU’s Enrollment Statistics, 3,609 students out of the 30,915 undergraduate students in Winter 2023 are first generation, meaning their parents didn’t attend college or didn’t complete a college degree.

BYU senior Rachel Allred, president of the First Generation College Student Organization, is on track to graduate in December. She said it is “thrilling to look at all these people being recognized for this grand achievement.”

Even with over 11% of all undergraduate students in this category, many of these students are isolated from one another.

BYU junior Kelly Hernandez Sanguino said she had been “doing this whole college thing” on her own without much support. “When I started three years ago, there wasn’t really a community,” Hernandez Sanguino said. “It was hard feeling like I didn’t relate to anyone.”

The previous year’s event had only 100 seats, with 80 participants showing up. The First Generation Student Organization decided to triple the number of seats this year, just in case more people decided to show up. Two weeks later, and with less than a week until the event itself, all 367 seats have been filled.

This data was taken from BYU’s University Enrollment Statistics website. First Generation students account for roughly 11% of the student undergraduate population. (BYU Enrollment Services)

BYU did not always have an organization geared towards helping first generation college students. Instead, students would work with the Office of First Year Experience to help them get used to the college experience.

Started in 2004, the office was designed to help students adjust to college and make connections with faculty, staff and other students. After finishing their first year, many first generation students were left without the support system that they needed.

Ben Gibbs, a sociology professor at BYU, said the skills that first generation students used to get into college have the potential to harm them once they arrive in college. Being “self reliant, driven and seldom reaching out for support” can lead students to take on “too many credits and working too many jobs.”

This flier was posted on the website where parents and students could sign up for tickets. The celebration will include a dinner and a guest speaker to commemorate this special achievement. (First Generation Student Organization)

Gibbs said many departments on campus care about these students, but lack a coordinated effort to help them succeed in school.

“I think we’re accustomed on this campus to address issues through colleges and departments, but a lot of students that struggle the most are in their first year or two on campus,” he said.

In their first year, they may not be connected with colleges, departments or organizations that are designed to help students thrive. “Most support needs to occur in the first year or two,” Gibbs said.

Over the past two years, Allred and other first generation students have pushed for recognition and help from the university. BYU recently added the First Generation Student Organization to the Office of First Year Experience. With the organization receiving additional support from BYU, Allred said they are starting to get recognition on campus, and that campus is becoming a friendlier place to them.

The First Generation Student Organization meets every other Tuesday during clubs night, providing a space for first generation students to connect with their peers and learn what resources are available to them. While getting a college education can be a difficult experience for first generation students, Allred knows that her efforts will be worth it.

“An education doesn’t just affect me and my life, but it affects my family, both at home and my future family,” Allred said. “It affects my community, both the community I came from and the one I can help contribute to and build wherever I go to next.”

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