Paving the way

The highs and lows of first-generation students at Wheaton

By Grace Kenyon, Staff Writer and Jacob Hosier, Features Editor

09.13.19

Sporting Chacos, blue jeans and a Rend Collective crewneck, junior Bible and theology major Darby Stevens may look like a typical Wheaton student — in many ways, she is one. What is extraordinary about Stevens though, is that she is part of an increasing number of students on campus who identify as first-generation college students.

“First-gen students [can] look like anyone,” fellow first-generation student and Wheaton alumnus Christian Ganza (‘19) said. “It’s not just international, it’s not just students of color, it’s not even just poor white people, it can be wealthy students whose parents didn’t go to college and [the students] have to figure [college] out for themselves.”

For many first-generation students, just the experience of being on a college campus for the first time can be daunting. Stevens spoke under the dim lights of the Stupe Cafe about her first time here on campus. “One of the most confusing and overwhelming weeks of my life was orientation. I got here and I had no idea what to do. I just felt like I had no direction and no understanding or context of what it looked like to come to college for the first time,” Stevens said. “My mom and I were both just like what is happening? What is an RA? What does it look like to go to the dining hall, is that normal? What is normal? The admissions process and transitioning into school was definitely the hardest.”

Ganza, who still lives in nearby Glen Ellyn and is about to begin a job in downtown Chicago, also spoke about his disorienting experience arriving at Wheaton, saying, “I came in thinking, ‘There are way too many people; there’s no way we are all going to be accommodated and taken care of.’”

Fortunately, many first-generation students have found support among their peers and faculty members at Wheaton. Junior sociology major Melissa Montiel and physics major Griffin Walker (‘19) both became interested in attending Wheaton as first-generation college students through the Pre-College BRIDGE Program. BRIDGE stands for Building Roads to Intellectual Diversity and Greater Education. According to the BRIDGE Program’s website, it is a “four-week intensive and residential academic and leadership program that brings together high-achieving, first-generation college-bound, low-income and African-American and Latino students from the Chicagoland area who are eager to experience the academic rigor of college.” The program spans the course of two summers and gives students from Chicagoland an opportunity to take college-level classes. For some of the students, it is an invitation to imagine a future that breaks away from their immediate context.

Montiel and Walker both spoke highly of their experience in the BRIDGE program. Montiel particularly enjoyed the way it challenged her academically and helped her build connections with Wheaton professors. The practical skills and the scholarly mindset that Montiel and her classmates gained from taking BRIDGE classes are critical for every college-bound student, but she said that this type of training was not always readily available at her high school.“They [the professors] didn’t water down any of the material for us,” Montiel said. “They expected us to think like them, to think like college students, to write like college students. It definitely helped a lot being able to format a paper and do research on your own.”

In addition to practical skills, the relationships that Walker and Montiel formed with professors and other students have been critical in their transition to the Wheaton undergraduate program. Coming to Wheaton, they already had a built-in community from the BRIDGE program. Walker said that her BRIDGE program peers have become her family. “I encourage anyone from the Chicago area to apply to BRIDGE,” she told the Record. “Even if they are first-generation students coming from elsewhere, I highly suggest they get connected with the BRIDGE community because they are all really great people and really good resources for how to navigate Wheaton and college in general as a first-generation student and underrepresented students.” During her time at Wheaton, she credits her summer research professors in the math department, who she said “encouraged me to sign up for the first research program that I did and that gave me a really great community that I got a lot of help from moving forward.”

The support systems they experienced at Wheaton helped both Montiel and Walker to adjust to the challenges of college life when they were unable to turn to their family for reassurance. “You’re thrown into Wheaton and expected to know what college life is like and you have them [older BRIDGE students] to help you,” Montiel said.

Coming into college as a freshman is difficult for most people, but first generation students who do not have the experience of older family members to draw upon often struggle with extra challenges. Support from other first-generation students is vital. “The worst thing,” Montiel said, “is that there is so much that’s expected of you.” She said her family was unable to understand the struggles that come with college life. Walker and Stevens agreed. Most of Stevens’ support for college came from adults outside of her immediate family. “I have a lot of mentor figures that have helped me, influenced me and guided me,” she said. “My statistics teacher in high school was awesome. My parents were not super involved and once I got here it was really interesting because being a first-gen student is not the norm.” Walker said that it was often difficult to relate to her family, because she is “always learning and getting frustrated that the people in my family don’t want to learn anymore.”

The learning curve that comes with freshman year impacted Stevens, Walker and Montiel, even in the smallest details of college life. “Freshman year was a struggle,” Montiel said. “College is very different for everyone, even if you’re on the same route. Little things like signing up for classes, knowing what books to get, how to talk to your advisor, knowing where certain buildings are or how to be a college student — I had to pick that up from people around me or ask my friends who were already on campus as upperclassmen.” Stevens also described how even the most basic aspects of the college experience, like going to the dining hall, were foreign to her. Now, Wheaton provides a lecture to introduce first generation students to college life, but Stevens, Montiel and Walker struggled to find regulated guidance during their college years.

“The acknowledgment of being [a first-gen student] here would’ve helped a lot,” Walker said. “I think there could have been a lot more help in navigating choosing a major. I did not feel like I got a lot of support from my major advisors because they changed every single year.” Walker struggled to choose a course of study because she had no context to choose a major and its related career and her disadvantage was not addressed by her advisors. Stevens also described the struggle of knowing proper protocol for typical college interactions, like emailing a professor. “I didn’t know how to have a professional relationship with a professor who also wanted to invest personally in my life. Knowing how to write an email and knowing what level of vulnerability is acceptable and what isn’t and also just wanting approval has been things I’ve wrestled with … No one taught me to have these conversations,” she said. Ganza, who was a business and economics major while at Wheaton, agreed that first-generation students need more support systems within their academic track. “If you know you’re going to be bringing in a bunch of first-gen students, you’d better have tools to actually support them,” he said.

While Ganza thinks first-generation students should be known and acknowledged as such, he also hopes students like him will feel at home and “[not] singled out in any way for having some sort of inadequacy.” For Ganza, full inclusion begins directly in the classroom. “My professors helped a lot,” Ganza said. “[They] treated me like everyone else because in reality, I am like everyone else.”

Many first generation students need extra guidance in terms of learning about college structure, but several mentioned in retrospect how the independence fostered by their background is helping them to succeed in their current jobs. Walker said, “I had to figure it all out by myself. That was a struggle, but I got pretty good at researching things on my own and that’s something that I do in my job now.”

For Montiel and Stevens, who are still in the process of exploring college as first-generation students, their experience has contributed to their leadership roles on campus. Montiel is president of College Union this year, and Stevens is the Christian Service Council (CSC) administrator and finance manager. “I’ve learned how to be a leader,” Montiel said. “Now that I’ve accomplished so much at college, my younger siblings cousins are definitely thinking about college.” Her advice for them? “Make your own legacy here … Pave the way for other students who are similar to you.”

Stevens encouraged other first generation students to “be curious and own your story. It’s really powerful,” she said. “You’re supposed to be here.”

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