First-generation and second to none

One in four UC students are the first in their family to attend college

These days Sydney King is thriving at the University of Cincinnati, but it wasn’t so long ago that attending college seemed utterly impossible.

The third-year special education major lost both her parents as a child. Her mother died of complications following gastric bypass surgery when she was 7, and she found her father, who struggled with alcoholism, dead in his bed when she was just 10. 

“So many things can be taken away from you in life — so many things,” says King. “But your education is something no one can take from you.”

On a campus where roughly one in four students are the first in their family to attend college, King is one of thousands at UC who fall into an important population known as first-generation college students.

In coordination with the national First-Generation College Celebration Day on Nov. 8, UC has set aside this week to celebrate the achievements of its own first-gen students who are lifting not only themselves but generations to come by pursuing their college degree. The annual nationwide celebration marks the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. 

Among the efforts at UC, the university is planning a panel discussion led by first-generation students to go along with an outreach campaign and fundraising effort to support scholarships for those who are the first in their family to attend college. You can also follow the effort on social media using the hashtag #UCFirstGen.

National statistics

  • Nationally, just 20% of first-generation college students earn their bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 49% of continuing-generation students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 
  • Data shows that 27% of first-gen students in this country are from households with an average income of $20,000 or less. 
  • In addition to financial strain, research suggests that first-gen students cite a lack of family support, low self- esteem, a struggle with adjusting to college, racial disparities, and not being prepared for college as barriers to success.

First-gen students at UC empowered by community

At UC, first-generation students find an institution that invests into their future by setting aside a living community, financial aid, dedicated advisers and by orchestrating intentional networking and community building opportunities for students who may not have as strong of a family base from which to draw, says Jack Miner, UC’s vice provost for enrollment management, who was himself the first in his family to earn a college degree.

He says UC has become a destination school for first-gen students — about 25% of UC’s total population — because the institution cares deeply. 

UC's Gen-1 IMPACT House

The Gen-1 1MPACT House is across Clifton Avenue from UC's Uptown Campus.

UC created its Gen-1 program in 2008. With a focus on successful transition to the university as well as retention and degree completion, a hallmark aspect of the program has been the Gen-1 Theme House, which The New York Times recognized as the nation’s first living-learning community to focus on first-generation college students. 

Over the last dozen years, the program has grown exponentially. Once only open to first-year students, returning students can now remain in the program year after year. The students live in the spacious Tower Hall, which is part of Stratford Heights directly across Clifton Avenue from campus. Known as the 1MPACT House (for students who are 1st generation, Motivated, Purposeful, Academically successful, Community-oriented and Talented scholars), it’s home to around 150 students. 1MPACT House also serves as a base of support for UC's many other first-generation students who do not reside there.

The proof of the success of UC’s Gen-1 program is in its graduation rate, which currently stands at 76%, a stark contrast to the 11% national grad rate for first-gen, Pell Grant-eligible students.

“The Gen-1 program really saved me and gave me that option to be able to come to college,” shares student King. “Coming from someone who lost their family, I came to college, and I created my own family.” 

Many of UC’s first-gen students come to UC from Cincinnati Public Schools, and efforts to empower them aligns with the CPS Strong initiative — described in the university’s strategic direction known as Next Lives Here — to not just create access but positively impact the future of the university and the city.

The Gen-1 program really saved me and gave me that option to be able to come to college. Coming from someone who lost their family, I came to college, and I created my own family.

Sydney King Third-year student in UC's College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services

COVID concerns

In addition to celebrating first-gen students this week, UC leaders are also scaling up efforts to shed light on crucial resources and support available to this population, many of whom may be struggling mightily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Miner says COVID amplifies concerns with UC’s first-gen students because the pandemic creates a barrier to connecting with campus community and also exacerbates financial hardships.

“The opportunity to go away to college and engage in classes and build those new networks has, in many cases, been kind of put on hold,” says Miner. “Economically, for a lot of students and families, they're being pulled in many different directions.

“And first-generation students may already not be able to fully concentrate on college right now because they still have commitments at home. They still play a role in supporting their family.”

National education leaders agree that supporting and nurturing first-generation students has never been more important.

"Academic disruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic place the futures of many first-generation students in a precarious state," says Maureen Hoyler, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, which aims to further the expansion of college opportunities for low-income, first-generation students, and students with disabilities.

Featured image at top: UC first-gen students from left include Karrington Rainey, Brittany Rice, Noah Oki and Jeff Williams standing near the Gen-1 1MPACT House. Photo/Lauren Meisberger.

Begin your Bearcats journey

At UC, first-generation students don’t have to do it alone. From our unique Bearcat Promise, to learning communities and dedicated advisers, you’ll find all the support you need to launch forward in any direction. Read more first-gen stories and apply to UC.

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