In order to better serve the needs of first-generation students on campus, the University of Michigan has opened the First-Generation Student Gateway — a study lounge, meeting area and information hub concentrated into one cohesive space.
The University defines first-generation students as those who self-identify as not having prior knowledge of or exposure to how to succeed while attending institutes of higher learning. These students may need additional educational input to get to the same level of background knowledge as their peers.
Located in the Student Activities Building, the space serves as an access point for several other student offices including the Office of New Student Programs, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives.
The space also houses the office of First-Generation Project Manager Adan Hussain, who emphasized the importance of creating a space to welcome these students on campus in an interview with the University Record.
“What we’ve done is centralized a lot of first-generation efforts,” Hussain, who was also a first-generation student, said. “It was really important to us to have a dedicated space because it creates a welcoming area and shows our commitment that we truly want these students here.”
In an email interview with The Daily, LSA senior Hunter Zhao, president of First-Generation College Students @ Michigan, said he felt like an imposter after first realizing many of his peers came from highly educated families. Unable to identify with their past travel or research experiences, Zhao said he initially struggled to come to terms with his own unique reality at the University.
“Beyond academics, I felt so out of place at the University of Michigan; it didn’t matter how many friends I could make on campus, I felt like a complete imposter,” he wrote. “These feelings were so pervasive during my first year at Michigan, but I had no idea how to make sense of my own experience. After a structured study group in my [organic chemistry] class, I told one of my classmates that I was the first in my family to go to college. ‘You’re so brave,’ she said. And somehow those words clicked in my mind. There had to be others; I began looking up other students at Michigan who were the first to go to college.”
However, after Zhao joined the First-Generation College Students organization, he said he finally found a community where he belonged, in which he learned the vocabulary to better understand, and even challenge, his experience on campus. He noted the University has been incredibly generous in supporting first-generation students and connecting them with a multitude of career opportunities.
“One of the biggest challenges that first-gens face is recognizing their own identity as a source of empowerment; our organization has received countless requests from industries like Google, Goldman Sachs and even the Detroit Pistons, who all have been interested in working with first-generation college students,” he wrote.
LSA junior Jazmine Mercado, executive board member of First-Generation College Students, said she believes the new First-Generation Gateway will serve as a space for students to come together and feel comfortable discussing their shared experiences.
“I think the First-Generation Gateway is long overdue and first-generation students need a place they can feel safe and content working in,” she said. “I think the Gateway will provide this to them and help them grow overall. Hopefully this Gateway will create a space where, in the future, first-generation students can feel they can go and have a place to study, talk with faculty or simply hang out.”
Zhao further emphasized Mercado’s sentiment, saying Hussain has been a valuable resource in the creation of such a space for first-generation students.
“Adan Hussain, the First Generation project manager, is incredibly well informed on all the valuable resources that first-gens can tap into while they are a student at Michigan,” Zhao wrote. “Rather than gauging the success of the Gateway based on the number of students who visit it each month, I will know whether it was successful based on the friendships that form there throughout the year.”
In the wake of the numerous bias incidents that have occurred on campus, Zhao noted he perceives a failure of the University to recruit first-generation students and ensure their safety on campus. He said in order to fully address the needs of first-generation students, the University must address the intersectionality of this group with other marginalized groups on campus.
“The University’s failure to properly respond to racist incidents such as the slurs found at West Quad represent the university’s failure to the first-gen student body. The exclusion of out-of-state students from the Go Blue Guarantee represents the exclusion of first-generation college students. Barriers faced by undocumented / DACAmented students on campus represents barriers faced by first-gens as well. To address the needs of first-gen students, the university must address the needs of LGBTQ students, students of color, low-income students, etc.”
Mercado also lamented the University’s failure to provide adequate resources for first-generation students before they submit their applications. Furthermore, she believes the University should provide better statistics regarding first-generation students on campus.
“I believe the University should be doing a much better job in reaching out to first-generation students,” she said. “Most students that I know that are first-generation don’t know that a lot of resources exists on campus for them. The University should be putting out more information and being more proactive in the way they give resources out. Also, I think the University should be doing a better job at trying to get more first-generation students to apply here and giving them funds when need be. Statistics on first-generation students are not widely available to students which I think should be changed.”