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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: First generation students deserve more from UNC

DTH Editorial Board member Caitlyn Yaede poses for a virtual portrait from her home on March 13, 2021. Yaede writes about her struggles as a first-generation college student during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For those who are the first in their families to attend a four-year university, even the most simple aspects of college can feel daunting. Signing up for courses, applying to professional programs and moving to campus are all far more difficult without support from a family member who has shared those experiences.

But for first-generation college students like myself, COVID-19 has made it even harder to achieve academic success and form a sense of belonging at the university. 

Students can usually find support or get advice from family members who attended college, but for first-generation students, that knowledge and support isn’t there. As a result, I found myself blindly navigating much of my first year at UNC. 

Unsure where to pursue opportunities on campus, how to make a plan towards my degree or when to seek help with courses, my UNC experience as a first-generation student has been drastically different than my continuing generation peers.

This holds true at colleges and universities everywhere. Nationwide, first-generation college students are less likely to make use of services like academic advising or even student health centers as first-years. 

As a result, many of these students struggle to form a sense of belonging. Acclimating to campus life is difficult enough for first-years, but the disorientation of both myself and my family, coupled with imposter syndrome, made it difficult to feel like I belonged at UNC.

The pandemic has only made this more difficult. Attending my classes remotely, I feel even more disconnected from campus life. The sense of belonging I worked hard to establish my first year on campus before the pandemic has since deteriorated.

Beyond these emotional struggles, COVID-19 has made it more difficult to get questions answered, seek advice from advisers and mentors on campus and be surrounded by students who might be in a similar situation. The isolation has meant grappling with all of these issues singlehandedly. 

My experiences don’t speak to those of every first-generation student, but they serve to demonstrate how COVID-19 has made life harder for the nearly 4,000 first-generation undergraduates at UNC.

The predominantly affluent campus culture at UNC also amplifies the struggles first-generation students face. 60 percent of UNC students come from the top 20 percent of family incomes, while the median parental income of first-generation students is disproportionately lower nationwide. This disparity makes it difficult to find a sense of belonging among other students, especially as the pandemic brings additional economic hardships.

Across the country, first-generation college students face lower graduation rates, higher drop-out rates and an average GPA that is lower than their peers. We have yet to see how major disruptions to academics, like COVID-19, will impact first-generation students, but it will likely be a disproportionate one. This does not have to be the case.

Perhaps now more than ever, UNC should take first-generation students into consideration: the emotional and academic barriers they face, and how virtual learning has fostered a disconnect between first generations and campus culture.

Not only should resources be expanded to first-generation students, especially first-years, but processes like major selection, financial aid applications and housing should also be more accessible to those who are the first in their family to tackle these endeavors.

First-generation students are not only important to the University, but to our communities and families. It’s time to create a campus culture that uplifts first-generation students, especially throughout the hardships brought on by COVID-19.


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Caitlyn Yaede

Caitlyn Yaede is the 2023-24 print managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel and oversees weekly print production. She previously served as the DTH's opinion editor and summer editor. Caitlyn is a public policy master's student at UNC.