Nicole Ojeda is the president of our Student Government Association on Pace University’s New York City campus. In fact, she’s a born leader. She has been executive secretary of our Latin American student organization and the founding executive vice president of our hip hop dance team, Urban Sound.
Nicole is also a first-generation college student, the first in her family to attend college.
Sunday, November 8, is National First-Generation College Celebration Day. Scheduled for the anniversary of the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Higher Education Act in 1965, National First-Generation Celebration Day is an opportunity to honor first-generation students on our campuses, celebrate their successes, and work together toward better ways to support them. At Pace, it’s a chance to honor students like Nicole. And it is a time to recognize that helping first-generation students — a community most impacted by the pandemic — to succeed and thrive in college and beyond is critical for American economic strength and for American families.
There are differing definitions for what constitutes a first-generation student. But however you slice it, there are a lot of them. The Center for First-Generation Student Success reports that 56 percent of American colleges have parents who did not earn a bachelor’s degree. Some 24 percent have parents with no post-secondary education at all.
And the evidence shows that these first-gen students often need extra support. They’re likely to need more financial aid. They’re less likely to have mentors. Perhaps most important, they simply don’t have parents at home who have been through the college experience and can help guide them. Through no fault of their own or their families, first-gen kids can’t lean on parents who know how to build a resume for college, how to navigate the sometimes grueling application process, how to apply for financial aid, or how to transition into college life, or how to network for jobs after they graduate. The data shows that the pandemic is hitting first-gen and minority students hardest, creating roadblocks to success and discouraging some of them from applying to school or continuing work toward their degrees.
That’s where the rest of us come in. We have an obligation to make sure that all qualified students, regardless of their economic or cultural background, have the opportunity to apply for and succeed in college, which is a key driver of professional success in life. First-gen students are no less smart, ambitious, or dedicated than other students, but they need our help. We must do the work to help first-gen students navigate the tough transition into college, and we must help them build the networks they will need to thrive through school and after they graduate.
College access programs are a great start. At Pace, we work closely with Latino U College Access, a group doing great work in Westchester County, New York. College access programs provide training and support, in a culturally sensitive way, for high-achieving, first-generation, low-income high school students. The National College Access Network has hundreds of member organizations across the country. They offer information sessions on how to prepare for college, how to apply for college, and how to pay for college. They offer boot camps on SAT and ACT prep, on essay writing, on completing the FAFSA. They help expose students to options and opportunities that they might never have known about, and help them start building their networks..
Colleges and universities have a role to play, too. Partnering with college access groups is a great way for higher education institutions to ensure that the student pipeline is diverse and robust. Latino U was born on our Westchester campus at Pace, developed from a Master of Public Administration project completed by founder Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, a two-time Pace alum.
We also need to do local outreach, and we need to partner with institutions in our communities to make sure college is accessible to all. In New York City, we work directly with high school students, like those at the Pace University High School in Lower Manhattan, a New York City Department of Education empowerment school, with a focus on college preparedness and a curriculum customized for its low-income community. And just this fall we’ve started working with our neighbors at Trinity Church Wall Street to offer free online college prep workshops to high school students in our area.
Corporations and communities can play a role, too, by supporting college access programs, partnering with local institutions to provide mentorship or tutoring, and doing whatever we can to make sure all students get the support they need to get to — and successfully through — college.
Nicole Ojeda will graduate from Pace in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in business management and minors in finance and economics. She’s one of thousands of first-generation students on our campus — and millions across the country — who will achieve their dreams and receive their diplomas. Like so many of them, Nicole is hard-working, she’s charismatic, and she’ll be ready to take on the world. It’s our job to make sure all first-gen students can succeed like she will.