For first-generation college students, the adjustment from home life to collegiate life can be more challenging than it is for most. In addition to being the first in their families to attend college, many of these students come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or underrepresented communities.
Nearly 25 percent of UT’s undergraduate student population identifies as first-generation college students, meaning that the struggles and difficulties faced by first-generation students are very prevalent on UT’s campus. However, the Division of Academic Success and Transitions is working tirelessly to ensure that first-generation students are comfortable at UT.
Dr. Talisha Adams currently works at UT as the Interim Director for the TRIO Student Services Program, as well as Assistant Director in the Division of Academic Success and Transitions, housed in the Student Success Center.
Adams, the youngest sibling in her family, was the first member of her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, as well as a master’s and doctoral degree. Therefore, when Adams heard over three years ago that there was a position open at UT to work with first-generation college students, she knew that it was the perfect chance to serve students in a position she had once occupied herself.
“I felt that was my perfect opportunity to give back to a population that I relate to so well, so it’s definitely my passion to work with students who come from underrepresented backgrounds and underserved communities,” Adams said.
Nowadays, Adams is heavily involved in many different programs and activities for first-generation college students, including UT LEAD. The UT LEAD program helps support 700 to 800 first-year and first-generation college students each year, through a mix of programming in leadership, academic excellency and diversity programming.
Several other opportunities for support for first-generation students exist; there is a First-Year Studies class specifically oriented towards first-generation students at UT, and there is also a first-generation, co-ed Living and Learning Community in Clement Hall, which houses about thirty students. Additionally, a first-generation peer mentor program exists, which pairs first-generation students with other first-generation students to help them in their academic journey at UT.
Adams explained that much of the UT community may be unaware of the struggles faced by first-generation college students, including the difficulties that begin before even entering college.
“If you don’t have a person in your life who you can talk to about how to fill out a college application or how to fill out the FAFSA, or what college should I be looking at, you’re kind of doing this ‘wiggin it,’” Adams said.
Therefore, the Division of Academic Success and Transitions and Multicultural Student Life have teamed up this year to put on a weeklong First-Generation College Student Celebration. The event aims not only to educate the UT community on what it’s like to be a first-generation student but also to celebrate and include first-generation college students at UT.
Last year, the celebration was held for just one day in November. Due to that event’s high reach and attendance, UT decided to expand the festivities to an entire week this year, as Karen Sullivan-Vance, the Associate Vice President for Student Success, explained.
Sullivan-Vance stated that First-Generation College Student Celebration Week not only recognizes UT’s hardworking first-generation students for their success, but it also gives them an opportunity to meet with others who also identify as first-generation students.
“This week gives the university community an opportunity to celebrate our first-generation students who are pioneers and trailblazers,” Sullivan-Vance said. “In addition, it lets first-generation students meet each other and get to know first-generation faculty and staff who are here to support them.”
The celebration kicked off Monday evening with a talk on intersectionality from Dr. Laura Rendón of the University of Iowa. On Tuesday, the festivities continued with a social media campaign, “Talk About It Tuesday,” during which the UT community used #CelebrateFirstGen online to discuss first-generation college students. Wednesday afternoon, first-generation students, faculty and staff gathered to paint the Rock and eat lunch together.
Later this week, first-generation students and all members of the UT community are invited to Thankful Thursday on Pedestrian Walkway and the Agriculture Campus Thursday morning. Students will be able to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and write a thank you postcard to someone who has helped them in their academic and life journey. On Friday, Frieson Black Cultural Center will be hosting a First-Gen Style cookout for lunch.
Sullivan-Vance offered a word of advice for first-generation students and emphasized that success as a first-generation college student is certainly more than possible; she has experienced it herself.
“You earned your way into the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, you belong and we believe in you. As a first-generation student myself, I know that you can be successful and I, and all the other first-generation faculty, staff and supporters are here to help you achieve your goals,” Sullivan-Vance said.
Adams highlighted a similar point, stating that she hopes that all first-generation students at UT are aware of the extensive resources that are available to help them succeed.
“Everything that we’re doing around first-gen at UT is to let those students know, you’re not alone,” Adams said. “You’re first, but you’re never alone, and we have so many awesome resources and so many people on campus who are willing to help you navigate this if you let us.”