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Pathfinders: A New Generation Takes the First Steps to College

By Jillian Hanson

When Sarah Coburn looks back on her days as a high school senior in Waterbury, Connecticut, she remembers that although she was a good student she felt confused and lacked direction about where to head next. While this may not be at all unusual for the average teenager facing adulthood, she was, perhaps, less prepared to plan for college than many of her classmates. That is because Coburn—who will graduate from Smith in 2007—is considered a “first-generation” student: one who comes from a family in which neither parent graduated from a four-year college or university.

Sidebar: She’s a Long Way from Home

Sidebar: Incoming Students Schooled in Life

Coburn is among a growing number who arrive at Smith as first-generation students: 19 percent of the class of 2009 are first-generation; the incoming class of 2010 boasts 22 percent. These impressive numbers are the result of Smith’s ongoing commitment to providing a diverse population of academically qualified students with an extraordinary educational experience. According to Smith Dean of Enrollment Audrey Smith, the Office of Admission targets many distinct groups in its recruitment efforts, including first-generation students. “Admissions can partner with high school guidance counselors and staff of social service agencies to recruit exceptional first-generation students still in high school,” Smith says. “We target certain geographic regions and populations, such as Spanish-speaking students. We try to have a very individualized approach for each prospective student—what kind of outreach and support will help them enroll at Smith?”

Overall, first-generation students are no different from their undergraduate peers, reflecting the intelligence, motivation, skills and leadership qualities necessary to succeed at Smith. On the other hand, first-generation students also face a particular set of challenges. Without models or parental support in negotiating the transition to college, first-generation students must forge new territory in their own lives and within the culture of their families. Even those parents who have attended two-year colleges may lack the knowledge and experience necessary to help their children navigate the complicated and sometimes bewildering processes of applying to and selecting a four-year college or university and adjusting to life away from home.

Haydee Esquivel joined the Smith class of 2010 this fall.

In addition, first-generation students can encounter other obstacles. Research shows that families of first-generation students sometimes may not provide emotional support and even try to discourage their children from attending college for fear that it will draw them away from parents and siblings. First-generation students are also more susceptible to doubts about their academic abilities; they may have grown up thinking they are not “college material.” On the college campus, they may also feel an uncomfortable sense of separation from the culture in which they were raised. All of these factors add to the stress of adapting to college life and can make academic success even more difficult.

However, once they arrive on campus, first-generation Smith students can take advantage of myriad institutional, social and academic supports to help them succeed. “There’s real sensitivity to the issues that all students face here, including first-generation students,” says Smith. “Many—but not all—first-generation students are low-income and/or students of color; many are first-generation Americans as well. Smith offers specific orientation sessions addressing a variety of issues, including residence life and academic resources. There’s also a class dean’s office for each class, and a HONS (head of new students) in each residence.” Audrey Smith is careful to point out that the resources available to first-generation students are available to all students. “Because we have served diverse populations of students for a long time, we have a sensitivity about that. It’s not within the Smith culture to categorize students or make assumptions about who they are.”

Studies show that institutional and interpersonal guidance and support are essential to first-generation students’ ability to complete four years of college successfully, no matter how determined and motivated they may be on their own.

Sarah Coburn ’07, right, with her friend Whitney Dorer ’07 in Emerson House.

Haydee Esquivel joins the class of 2010 this fall as a first-generation student and a first-generation American from a low-income, single-parent family. Born in Boston, Esquivel moved to Costa Rica with her mother and her sister when she was two and lived there until she was 17—which means she did not learn to speak English until she moved back to the United States two years ago. Esquivel has struggled against remarkable odds to get to Smith. When her family arrived back in the States they lived for a while in a homeless shelter in New Orleans. Still, she managed to excel in high school, even though she had to work to help support her family, and eventually ranked third in her senior class with a 4.2 grade point average. “It has been important for me to be self-sufficient, responsible and motivated in this new country because when we first arrived my family was undergoing adjustments of their own and they couldn’t be as helpful as I had hoped,” she says. “I like that Smith has a lot of academic support because I’m going to need help with things like grammar and writing papers, since English is not my first language.” Esquivel plans to study biology and pre-med at Smith. Her dream is to become a doctor and work with Doctors Without Borders.

Sarah Coburn ’07, who also grew up in a single-parent family, found Smith’s supportive environment key to her own undergraduate experience. “Without the Career Development Office and the aid of my professors, I don’t think I would have felt as ready as I do to take on the next challenge,” she says. These days, she is focusing on completing her undergraduate degree in English language and literature and applying to law schools. “I know that as I look ahead I have a whole team of supporters behind me and a lot of people with a wealth of information to aid me along the way.” With the support and resources she had at Smith, Coburn is gaining new ground for herself and her family. “I will be the first of my family to go on to graduate school,” she says. “My mother is very proud of me being a Smithie. She loves the school and is thrilled that I’m able to have this experience. I feel privileged to be a Smith student as well because my experiences are ones I think my mother and grandmother would have loved to have had themselves.”

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