For first-generation students, challenges lead to opportunities
“What does being first mean?” was written at the top of an easel propped at Joseph Vaughn Plaza.
Several of Furman’s nearly 300 first-generation students – the first in their immediate families to pursue a four-year degree – left replies: “Open doors for my siblings.” “To prove that my family and I are worthy.” “Bringing new perspective to every opportunity.” “Change and be great.”
Presented by the First-Generation Student Alliance (FGSA) and the divisions of Student Life and Academic Affairs, First-Gen Week in early November continued a campus initiative to improve outcomes for a growing population of students, said Rod Kelley ’06, assistant dean of student conduct.
Furman is a member of the First Scholars Network, which is made up of higher education institutions committed to supporting students who are first in their families to attend college. Colleges and universities raise awareness of the first-generation college student identity and celebrate students’ experiences through annual programs associated with First-Generation College Celebration, an initiative launched by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-generation Student Success.
Nov. 8 marks the day when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which created financial aid programs that substantially funded students’ educational experiences and invested in federal programs that supported educational opportunities in disenfranchised communities.
‘A little extra’
As a former first-generation student himself, Kelley understands the challenge of lacking the “social capital” those who have learned about university life from their inner circle might take for granted. The Pathways Program, directed by Michelle Horhota, associate dean of mentoring and advising (who was also a first-generation student), is one way Furman is working to level the playing field, said Kelley, a Pathways Program advisor.
A set of courses introducing the skills and resources for success in college, Pathways is part of the first- and second-year curriculum for all students, which Kelsey Sumter ’24, a chemistry major and FGSA secretary, sees as a positive step.
Like many other first-generation students, Sumter was highly self-motivated from early on.
“Everything I did in school was intentional to get to the next step,” said the senior, who earned a James B. Duke Scholarship. “I knew I had to do a little bit more and be a little extra with it.”
Along with her FGSA duties, the senior joined the Furman Justice Forum and Women in STEM and is the former vice president of the school’s NAACP chapter – all while working as a video production assistant for the Paladins football team.
The “natural hair enthusiast” also maintains the Instagram account @kels4kurls, creating content for 100,000 followers. The aspiring cosmetic chemist plans to eventually launch her own brand.
Navigating transition and growth
Sumter’s fellow chemistry major and FGSA officer Austin Arias ’24, who intends to pursue his studies in a Ph.D. program, co-authored a paper published recently by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The senior may have inherited some of his interest in chemistry from his mother, who received technical training in Argentina before moving to South Carolina.
“Finding other individuals in FGSA who have similar backgrounds and experiences was very helpful,” said Arias, who also plays trombone in the Paladin Regiment Marching Band. “College is a difficult time for everybody, because it’s a period of transition and growth. And an unfortunate truth is that some people have more of a foundation to find resources. My goal with FGSA is making those resources more available to people like me.”
‘The small things’
Like Arias, Grace Prince ’25, FGSA’s vice president, “didn’t have anyone in my immediate family to talk to about college,” she said. “But first-generation students celebrate the small things that other people overlook. We have the pride of making it through the year despite all the things we had to find out for ourselves.”
Prince, a sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major and poverty studies minor, has helped dozens of new students – first-generation and otherwise – take full advantage of campus resources as an orientation leader and Pathways peer mentor.
“I love being in leadership roles and being able to help people,” said the Hearst Fellow, who is considering law school. “I want to be there for other students like me. The best I can do is encourage them and tell them their options.”