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'A source of pride': First-generation students find their way at UNC

The Old Well on Thursday, April 27, 2023

Kayla Tran, a first-generation college student and junior at UNC, said she felt imposter syndrome when applying to college on her own.

But, Tran said she found support on campus through interactions with students who have similar backgrounds.

“I think that one of my favorite experiences as a first-gen student was when I took Vietnamese 101 as my language requirement,” she said. “I met a lot of Vietnamese people, and we were all first-generation students too.” 

Tran said she formed a bond with these students and continued to take classes with them.

First-generation college students make up nearly 20 percent of the undergraduate population at UNC. These students come from families where their parents or guardians did not receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States.

For some first-generation students at UNC, navigating college on their own without family support can be difficult.

There are also formal organizations for first-generation students at UNC that provide support and community. 

UNC's First-Generation Student Association is run by students to help their peers ask questions, seek opportunities and find community. Grace Wolf, secretary for the FGSA, said she is confident in the fact that she is a first-generation college student.

“It’s a source of pride for me to know that I’m where I am because I worked hard, and it’s also a source of pride for my parents who encouraged me to go to college,” Wolf said in an email.

Wolf said the organization offers informative events and materials to support and help first-generation students.

“We’re dedicated to providing a safe space for all first-gen students at UNC and work to provide resources for career building, academics, and social events,” Heeba Shaikh, a junior and marketing team member for the FGSA, said in an email.

Gina Park, a recent UNC graduate and former FGSA marketing chair member, was a part of the organization for all four of her years as a student.

“I was a part of FGSA at UNC, so I was able to make some memories and friends being a part of that student organization,” Park said in an email. “My first-gen identity also ensured that I get as much out of my time at UNC as possible since I worked so hard to get here.”

The UNC College of Arts and Sciences' Center for Student Success also supports first-generation UNC students through celebratory events like National First-Gen Day and the Carolina Firsts Pinning Ceremony at the end of the year. 

Every first Friday of the month, the center also hosts First-Gen Fridays on campus that students can visit for informational sessions and snacks.

The Carolina Covenant Scholars Program for low-income undergraduate students also provided an additional pool of resources for UNC sophomore Kelvin Perez, another first-generation student. 

Perez said the mentorship through this program has been helpful for navigating challenges in college.

“These upperclassmen have helped me with things such as finding classes, emailing professors to even helping me find clubs that I love being a part of such as Alpha Phi Omega and the Carolina Outing Club,” Perez said in a statement.

Tyra Rubin, a senior at UNC and member of the FGSA’s communications and public relations team, said that UNC could provide more opportunities that could benefit first-generation students and their families.

“For example, the alumni Parents’ Weekend at UNC,” Rubin said in a statement. “There is no first-gen Parents’ Weekend, especially not at that scale, and I really think the equivalent could be helpful for first gens at UNC.”

First-generation graduate students come from families where neither parent or guardian received a master’s or doctoral degree. Many of these graduate students were also the first in their families to receive an undergraduate degree.

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X. Ramos-Lara is a first-year doctoral student in English at UNC, and a first-generation undergraduate and graduate student. 

She said she felt intimidated during graduate school orientation because many students came from families who had previous experiences navigating higher education.

“You have to realize that you made it to this University on your own merit,” Ramos-Lara said. “And being a part of this community of first-generation students is something to be proud of, and you should openly claim that. You should never have to deny yourself the possibility of accessing that communal space that you deserve.”


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