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Carolina Firsts help first-generation students through unique challenges

Carmen Huerta-Bapat, director of Carolina Firsts, expresses her excitement regarding the development of the website and the perspective that it provides.

Senior Damian Walker always knew he wanted to go to college. But as a first-generation student, he was entering uncharted territory.

“You kind of create your own path at UNC, being a first-generation student,” he said. “I can’t look at my mother and say, ‘Hey, I should do what she did’ or look at my father and do what he did. I just kind of eventually found my path at UNC.”

Walker is not alone in his journey to become the first person in his family to receive a college diploma. Nearly 20 percent of UNC undergraduates are categorized as “Carolina Firsts.” 

As the director of the Carolina Firsts program, Carmen Huerta-Bapat is responsible for overseeing all first-generation students at UNC. She says that first-generation students generally have strong character but may need extra guidance as they navigate the university.

“I feel like they can handle really tough things,” Huerta-Bapat said. “But when it comes down to something so simple as asking for a letter of recommendation, they don’t have the skill set because they have never been told.”

As a first-generation student herself, Huerta-Bapat recognizes that first-generation students typically have to deal with more than just their studies.

“Some of our students also have the unique situation where they’re actually the main caregivers for a parent or a grandparent,” she said. “So, in addition to the added stress of just being a student, they have to navigate what it is to help parents choose the right provider for whatever ailing situation is going on.”

Students are encouraged to refer to Carolina Firsts Advocates, professors who have been trained to understand the complex issues that this population faces. Senior Dhanesh Budhram is a first-generation student who values the advice from professors and other mentors he’s met at UNC.

“I’ve been lucky that all of the people who work with the Carolina Office of Undergraduate Retention and Carolina Covenant and Carolina Firsts, as well as a lot of my professors, both in the biology department and outside, have been wanting to give me a lot of advice and answer a lot of my questions,” he said.

In order to strengthen the mentorship provided to first-generation students, Carolina Firsts has partnered with organizations like the Carolina Covenant Scholars program — a program helping low-income students. Huerta-Bapat notes that Carolina Covenant and Carolina Firsts are not the same, since first-generation students come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, she is aware that many of the students come from families that are under significant financial constraints and may have to work long hours to make ends meet.

Recently, Huerta-Bapat has seen an increase in the number of first-generation students who are concerned that their immigrant parents will be deported. In light of this situation, Huerta-Bapat says that it is especially important to advocate for first-generation students and celebrate their journey to obtain a college degree.

“We want students to know that we are proud of their achievements, their accomplishments, and we want them to be here,” she said. “The University thrives by having them and bringing their unique perspectives.”

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