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UNC welcomes new class of first-generation college students

Bailey Seitter/DTH
Brittany Greene, a senior Business Administration major, leads an icebreaker with a group of students. Greene is the treasurer of Carolina First, an organization that welcomes first generation college students at UNC. The executive board expected about 100 students to show up to the program.

As 85 students walked into the Union Underground on Tuesday night, they were handed a slip of paper with a date four years in advance: May 9, 2015 — graduation.

Though that day might seem distant, administrators want to make sure the University’s first-generation students focus on completing the four-year education that eluded their parents.

Carolina Firsts — a campus organization that supports students who are the first in their families to attend a four-year college — hosted the Tuesday event, which was a part of UNC’s Week of Welcome.
Carolina Firsts President Renato Pereyra said the dinner was meant to facilitate friendships, connections and build a solid foundation of support for new first-generation students.

“Peer support is vital for reaching graduation,” he said.

In the past five years, the percentage of first-generation students in each incoming class has hovered around 18 percent, and the number of applicants has also been growing. In total, about one-fifth of the UNC population is first generation.

But first-generation students are statistically less likely to graduate than students who have parents with college degrees, said Cynthia Demetriou, director of retention in the office of undergraduate education.

“Our goal is to retain students by getting them in touch with academic resources and becoming acclimated to college life,” Demetriou said.

She added that Carolina Firsts —an organization developed four years ago by students who wished to improve retention rates — provides a lot of this support.

“First-generation students tend to come from lower-income families and underrepresented populations,” Demetriou said.

“They’re often from more rural communities where K-12 may not be as strong.”

She added that 55 percent of the Carolina Covenant Scholars program’s members are first-generation students.

Along with the students who attended the dinner Tuesday, a handful of administrators from academic advising and admissions met the new students.

In their introductions, they emphasized their open door policies and shared the locations of their offices.

The event allowed the students to ask upperclassmen questions about college life that their parents might not have been able to answer.
“I feel like there are hidden rules to college,” said senior Kristen Griggs, co-chairwoman of the mentor program in Carolina Firsts.

Griggs said that when she first came to college she didn’t know basic things about college culture and how to talk to professors.

Her parents had attended community colleges, but didn’t have the four-year college experience to coach her on, she said.

Patty Baum, assistant director of admissions, said the number of first-generation students might be rising because a college degree is becoming more important in today’s job market.

She added that first-generation parents are also important to support since parents might not know how to best support their son or daughter.

“I think being the first to go to college is more than just you,” Baum said. “It’s your family who goes as well.”

“When other people see people going to college and being successful, it inspires hope,” Baum said.

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