Some are Tar Heel born — and know they will one day walk through Chapel Hill as students, just as their parents did before them.
For others, who are the first in their family to attend any college, this path is far from guaranteed.
20 percent: of the UNC population is first generation students
62 percent: of first generation students graduate within four years
733 students: who entered UNC in 2013 were classified as first generation
Today, first generation college students make up about 20 percent of the University’s student population — but they still face a unique set of challenges in academics, social and family life.
These challenges could help explain lagging graduation rates for first generation students. According to the Office of Undergraduate Education, 62 percent of first generation students at UNC graduate within four years, compared to the University average of 82 percent.
Last month, Chancellor Carol Folt announced an initiative to raise University-wide graduation rates. The plan promises up to $4 million over four years and will pay special attention to low-income, first generation and underrepresented students.
Steve Farmer, vice provost of enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said administrators don’t know specifics yet but hope to have a firmer idea by the end of the semester.
Senior Lara Taylor, executive council chairwoman of Carolina Firsts, an organization dedicated to supporting first generation college students, said the first step toward college is just deciding to apply.
“A lot of students don’t feel like they can do well so they don’t feel like they should even bother to apply because college isn’t for them,” she said. “It’s just not something their family does.”
Taylor’s mother completed the 11th grade, and her father finished eighth grade. It was not until years after she graduated high school, when her parents were in poor health without stability or insurance, that Taylor realized what a tragedy their lack of education was.
Taylor joined the military and then earned a 4.0 grade point average in community college before transferring to UNC. Fifty percent of UNC transfer students are first generation.
Cynthia Demetriou, director for retention in the Office of Undergraduate Education and faculty adviser for Carolina Firsts, said first generation students are often overwhelmed by the application and financial aid process and lack the support to complete it.
But, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the number of first generation students at UNC has increased throughout the past eight years, from 656 in the freshman class in 2006 to 733 in 2013.
Farmer said two factors have led to an increase in first generation applicants: a visible commitment by the University to support them, and a changing applicant pool within the state.
He said programs like Carolina Firsts and the Carolina Covenant, which meets full financial need for students, make UNC more accessible for first generation students. Currently, 54 percent of Covenant scholars are first generation students.
Matt Rubinoff, executive director of the Center for Student Opportunity, a national nonprofit, said first generation students often choose schools that don’t support them due to lack of information.
“They tend to choose the junior college option, the trade school, the commuter state school,” he said. “And all too often don’t find the support they need there — in and out of the classroom — and often drop out.”
The CSO’s main project is a website called “I’m First,” where first generation students can watch and share videos of their experiences with college.
Other first generation students say they experience a difficult transition process once they are on campus. Like Eric Van Wingerden, they have trouble adjusting to the workload.
“I didn’t expect how much work it would be and how you have to actively seek out different resources to get help,” he said.
For some, the biggest challenges are academic. Many first generation students come from underprepared high schools or community colleges and face problems with academic rigor.
Taylor said community colleges don’t prepare students for the work at four-year universities because community colleges are structured more like high school with frequent tests, quizzes and projects.
Demetriou said asking for help can be a challenge because first generation students are used to accomplishing goals on their own.
Farmer encouraged students to reach out to students and professors for help because many were the first of their family to go to college.
“Students don’t realize that. It’s easy to assume you’re the only one,” he said.
For other first generation students, the challenges are socially centered and based on a fear of being different.
“For me, it was hard to get involved because when you feel like maybe you don’t belong, you don’t want to venture out into the social aspect because there’s a fear of confirming you don’t belong,” she said. “It’s better to just assume it but not really know it.”
These challenges are often closely linked and could help to explain lagging graduation rates, Demetriou said.
“If you’re not feeling good about yourself, like you belong, it’s going to be really hard to perform academically,” she said. “And if you’re doing great academically but you’re just not happy here, you’re probably not going to persist either.”
Another factor in four-year graduation rates is that many first generation students are from low-income households, where students may have to work throughout their time at UNC or are unable to take summer classes.
“It all comes down to not feeling at home. That, paired with people who have financial problems and have to put themselves through school,” Van Wingerden said.
Outside of the University, first generation students also face problems balancing school and home life.
Sophomore Nancy Le is the first in her family to attend college in the United States. Her father graduated in Vietnam, and her parents are not proficient in English.
Le said she sometimes feels like she has different responsibilities than her peers because she is also a mediator for her parents and handles her finances and insurance.
“I feel sometimes that I’m a little more grown up,” she said. “On my bad days I feel like this is not fair — the things that I think about, the things I take care of on my own.”
Although her parents are supportive, Le said they can’t always help her because they don’t understand the college academic culture in the U.S.
Demetriou said some students struggle going home for the first time, feeling like they have changed.
“It could be for the better, that they’ve grown. But in some ways they identify as different than when they started. So there’s fear of being rejected,” she said.
“Students have communicated things like being teased when they went home, like, ‘Oh you think you’re better than us — you’ve gone to college.’”
UNC programs work to involve parents of first generation students in their child’s experience. Admissions offers special nights for admitted first generation students and parents to ask questions.
Carolina Firsts also sponsors a pinning ceremony before graduation for families to recognize the accomplishment of first generation students.
Taylor said the attitude of parents varies widely — some are enthusiastic, almost living vicariously through their children. Others don’t understand or care, and others fall somewhere in between.
Van Wingerden said even supportive parents often don’t understand what college is like.
“The common thread I’ve heard here is that parents don’t understand how difficult it is here and how difficult the adjustment is. How it can be a shark pit sometimes,” he said.
Taylor said some parents who didn’t go to college think the four years are only about getting a degree and a job — but they’re also about friends and experiences.
“I would hate, 20 years from now, to look back on my time at UNC and think nothing but school, classes. You have to get them to know you need these moments too.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.