Viviana Gonzalez is one of 18,862 undergraduate students at UNC. However, according to the Office of Undergraduate Retention, Gonzalez is one of 4,000 students to be the first in their family to attend college.
“Coming to Carolina was such an emotional and exciting experience but furthermore, it’s also intimidating because there’s so much going on,” Gonzalez said. “Coming in, I was searching for self-identification and where my niche among the student population would be.”
Gonzalez, president of the Carolina Firsts Student Organization and an intern for the Office of Undergraduate Retention, said this year she is hoping to bolster a sense of belonging among first-generation students on campus.
“I really want the campus to be aware of who we are,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said programs within the Carolina Firsts Program, such as the Carolina Firsts Honors Program, provide an understanding that the University is making an effort to support first-generation students.
The Carolina Firsts Honors Program, developed by Carmen Huerta in 2017, is the first of its kind in the country. Huerta, who is also director of the Carolina Firsts Program, said her main incentive when implementing the program was to ensure that first-generation students performed at the same level as their peers.
Any first-generation student with a GPA of 2.7 or higher is eligible to apply to the Carolina Firsts Honors Program, which is based on a three-pronged approach to engage, connect and celebrate. Students within the program must complete a variety of requirements, including participating in “high-impact activities” within the community and a study abroad or alternative break program.
“As (students) continue to check their requirements, inherently they are learning, they are growing, they are thriving,” Huerta said. “Students are essentially being provided with a concrete road map of success.”
A first-generation college student herself, Huerta said the program’s goal was to ensure that Carolina Firsts have “a meaningful college experience,” not restrained by a lack of understanding of the opportunities available to UNC students. Additionally, mentorship and guidance play a large role in the Carolina Firsts Program, Huerta said.
“It’s a two-way street," Huerta said. "You’re not teaching them, you’re guiding them, but half the time, you’re learning so much more from them than they are learning from you."
Yamilet Snelson, a 2018 UNC graduate and former Carolina Firsts Honors Program participant, said the program challenged her to have the “college experience.”
“It helped me reach out of my bubble,” Snelson said.
Snelson also said the program, while essential in providing a community for first-generation students, could find ways to guide Carolina First first-years.
“I think there could be a ‘little’ and a ‘big’ type of situation going on for someone that comes in because it is a little bit overwhelming, especially at the beginning because you don’t even know what to take,” Snelson said.
Gonzalez also said first-generation first-years need additional guidance.
“It takes a lot of courage for first-generation students to make the decision to pursue higher education,” Gonzalez said. “We’re not depending on that parental figure whose steps we can follow and we know we’ll have to create this pathway on our own.”
This year, Gonzalez said the Carolina Firsts Student Organization planned workshops, services projects and other campus events for students to get involved in, such as engagement with admissions and mentorship programs with Chapel Hill high schools. In particular, the organization will be highlighting First-Generation College Celebration Day on Nov. 8 through a campus puzzle, symbolizing unity among Carolina Firsts.
Some of the goals Huerta said the Carolina Firsts Program is working towards this year are solidifying the current infrastructure of their initiative and increasing attendance at campus events.
Additionally, although UNC’s New Student and Family Programs provides monetary support to the Carolina Firsts Program, Huerta said outside donors could help to maintain steady funding for all 4,000 students.
“I’m aware that other institutions don’t have programs like this and we’re really fortunate,” Gonzalez said. “It is not easy, and it’s frightening at times, and there are always thoughts of doubt. I don’t think that my experience would be possible if I didn’t have the Carolina Firsts Program. Even though it feels like you’re alone on campus sometimes, I want to make these students come together and actually celebrate our identity.”
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