Sociology first-year Nayeli Gomez hoped to navigate her first semester at UNC alongside her six suite mates, all of whom were Hispanic and the first in their families to go to college.
They made pancakes, studied, and completed their homework together during their first two weeks living at Craige Residence Hall. It resulted in them bonding over their Hispanic backgrounds, the sexism they've faced within their families, and concerns going into their first semester at college.
“It just felt so good to be able to connect with people who look like me and who had experiences like me,” Gomez said.
But that bond was threatened after UNC announced residence halls would be de-densified.
Although they continue to hold weekly virtual hangouts over Zoom and text, Gomez said she and the rest of the group were forced to adjust to their first semesters at college from home, and help their parents understand the process as well.
“How do I explain this new experience, that's new to me, to somebody else that’s also new for them?” Gomez said. “You just wish your parents could just see how it works instead of having to explain it to them.”
Gomez is one of 5,303 students that entered UNC this year who are the first in their family to go to college, according to a UNC report. More than 800 of those students are transfers, the report reads.
The pandemic has forced college-wide events catered toward first generation students to be held virtually — a challenge for those who want to form connections among peers but feel isolated at home, senior Melanie Krug, president of the First Generation Student Association, said.
The group — composed of more than 700 first generation students — has noticed dwindling involvement and participation from students this semester, Krug said. They’ve hosted several cover letter, resume, and networking workshops throughout the semester.
“I’d like to think that part of it because there’s a connection barrier,” she said.
Addison Powers, a first generation, first-year student, said still he feels isolated taking classes at home because he only interacts with other students from his computer screen.
“One of the main reasons I chose to come to Carolina was to make all those connections, and just the sheer size of Carolina appealed to me,” Powers said.
For sophomore journalism student Camila Moreno-Lizarazo, the possibility of moving into an apartment this fall was a family affair, before she ultimately decided to move back home to Charlotte.
Moreno-Lizarazo — a first generation student and Carolina Covenant Scholar — said she would need to carve out a weekend with her family to help her move in and carefully budget her finances to ensure she could afford to live off campus.
The 19-year-old said her three potential roommates, who aren’t first generation, couldn’t quite understand why she couldn't easily commit to their plans of moving into a residence hall.
“I always felt constantly out of place,” Moreno-Lizarazo said.
Approximately 27 percent of first-generation college students come from households that make $20,000 or less a year, while 6 percent of low income students are not first generation, according to a 2017 report from the United States Department of Education.
Krug said the majority of students who are part of the First Generation Student Association are low-income.
She said being low-income and a first generation student can often translate into difficulties finding affordable tutoring options outside UNC and finding adequate living options. After being laid off from her part-time job at the Carolina Inn in March, Krug was forced to move back home to Holly Springs, North Carolina because she couldn’t afford her off-campus apartment.
“Your resources of succeeding are limited,” Krug said.
Last year, Moreno-Lizarazo relied on her brother — a pre-med student at UNC who is a grade above her — to help her adjust to UNC. He also encouraged her to form good study habits, join clubs, and attain a work study position.
“He really helped me understand what I should be prioritizing,” Moreno-Lizarazo said. “He just wanted to make sure I wasn’t slacking off.”
Adjusting to campus culture at home
Upon moving back home in March, P.h.D geography student Montana Eck said tension built up between him and his family when he couldn’t tend to his responsibilities at home because of his classes.
Eck, who lives on a 50-acre farm in Old Fort, said he was responsible for taking care of the field and feeding the animals, while also teaching classes, finishing research papers, and staying on top of his graduate coursework.
“There's always that disconnect,” Eck said. “You don't necessarily always feel comfortable telling your family what you're doing because you don't think that they'll understand or care.”
For Moreno-Lizarazo, going back home to Charlotte with her brother meant getting readjusted to her Colombian family’s rules and traditions. Instead of only worrying about food for themselves, the siblings are required to cook a portion of dinner for the whole family on most days of the week.
If she couldn’t tend to her chores on a certain day because of a class assignment or outside responsibilities, Moreno-Lizarazo said her family would jokingly say she doesn’t do anything around the house.
“I felt really under-appreciated,” Moreno-Lizarazo said. “Because even though it was a joke, I would always still help out around the house as much as I could, make sure that the house was okay and we were all eating and things like that. So it never felt like it was true. And it always just felt like a little dig at my self esteem.”
Resources available at UNC
During this remote semester, UNC is committed to using its programs and resources to keep first generation students connected to other students during the pandemic.
First generation students at UNC can talk to professors and University staff members who are part of the Carolina Firsts Advocates program to discuss academic challenges and issues they’re facing during the semester.
The University also offers first-generation students the opportunity to take standard courses together in a cohort through the Lookout Scholars Program. They also receive guidance from faculty mentors and participate in peer coaching.
Carmen Gonzalez, director of the program, said the First Generation Student Association has continued to provide community through events and workshops.
“The first-generation student population at Carolina continues to demonstrate resiliency,” Gonzalez said in a statement via UNC Media Relations.
But Powers said he still feels like he's not getting the college experience he built up from movies and TV shows.
"I just feel like I'm missing that social interaction that was so hyped up before entering college ," he said.
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