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By Ian Meropol and Samantha Mocle

Thomas MorganJennifer L. Granger Sullivan Omar Jimenez Soto '23

Pictured left to right: Thomas Morgan, Jennifer L. Granger Sullivan, and Omar Jimenez Soto '23 
Photos by Todd Dionne

First-generation students make up nearly half of the national college population. The demographic - defined most broadly (but not resolutely) as students who are first in their family to attend or complete college - represents a population whose stalwart pursuit of a bachelor's degree may be threatened by the "hidden syllabus" of higher education.

In high school, students tackle academic problems with a parent or teacher. But when the subject they're struggling with is the entire college experience, where do they go? 

Questions like these arise for nearly all first-year students. What separates first-gen from the pack is their lack of familial expertise to help. It is important to remember, says the Washington, D.C.-based Center for First-Generation Student Success, that "first-generation" status is not indicative of academic performance. Rather, those students find it more challenging to navigate the "tangled web of college policies, procedures, jargon, and expectations" of an institution, which rattles their confidence.

"I remember feelings really lost in my undergraduate first-year seminar course because they talked about registering for classes and exploring your major and what offices to visit for different things and I just thought, 'What is all of this?' I thought that something was wrong with me," says Thomas Morgan, assistant director of Lasell's Donahue Institute for Ethics, Diversity, and Inclusion

Morgan was the first in his family to attend college at nearby Lesley University. He found it difficult to utilize his parents for help with nonacademic situations - "they'd just say 'read more and study harder'" - and wound up connecting with the school's student activities office."They knew how to help me, so that was a big resource," he says. 

Graph: Percentage of full-time college students who are first-gen (Lasell 44%, National 40%); Graph:Percentage of first-gen students to complete bachelor's degree in 6 years: Lasell 59%, National 20%) Source: Lasell University and NASPA Center for First-Generation Student SuccessAt Lasell University, 44 percent of current undergraduate students are first-generation. They come from every race, gender, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and educational background. So with nearly half of campus navigating college life for the first time in family history, how do you ensure their success?

"You can really feel alone in the process," says Jennifer L. Granger Sullivan, director of student activities and orientation. "Now that I run orientation at Lasell, it always intrigues me to find the kid that drove themselves. I love  that kid. I am that kid."

Granger Sullivan's first-gen journey started at UMass Dartmouth. As a higher education administrator, she frequently reflects on the questions she had as an undergraduate to better assist first-gen students at Lasell.

"I remember not knowing what add-drop was and wound up getting a C in a course that I had struggled in," adds Granger Sullivan. "It's one of  those things that I mention right away: how to add and drop classes, withdraw, understand their transcript. I'm hypersensitive and want to make sure that we're thinking of every student in how we present information and organize our services."

That's a big part of first-gen retention: identifying administrators and peers who understand the situation. 

"You need that support, to know that there are people who have gone through it already," says Omar Jimenez Soto '23. The Lasell freshman hails from Puerto Rico by way of Amherst, Massachusetts, and calls access to first-gen employees a "powerful" resource. Though he completed high school in Massachusetts, the majority of his friends are from Puerto Rico and had never experienced the college process in the United States. As the oldest household English speaker, he simultaneously helped his parents with job interviews while filling out his own FAFSA forms and scholarship applications.

"It is difficult but it has also made me a role model for my parents," he says. "Even though they are adults, they ask me for financial advice or how to apply to jobs. It is meaningful to me because even though I am younger, I see immediately how my education benefits them as well."

That grit, says Morgan, is a badge of honor. 

"Many educators and first-gen students say a lot of their success starts with that feeling of turning what was once a disadvantage into a source of identity." That's according to NPR reporter Elissa Nadworny in a November 2019 story on the changing face of college. 

Morgan puts that pride to work at Lasell by meeting with students as part of his regular duties, but also by promoting communication across departments to meet needs that students might not anticipate. But, he says, it's important to remember that each first-generation student has their own set of needs. 

"There is no one way to be a first-generation student. There are a million unique stories that come with that status. It is important to think of them as individuals with their own experiences, struggles, priorities, and triumphs." 

He and Granger Sullivan have participated in the first round of celebratory events for first-gen students and staff - two alone in fall 2019 - and both use their positions to connect the dots for the newest group of higher ed pioneers. 

"These students have such excitement, joy, energy, hope, and gratitude about them," says Granger Sullivan. "Lasell is really open in showing how much they care about first-gen students," says Jimenez Soto. When he saw that in action, "that was the confirmation that I chose the best place for me. I saw that I had opportunities, a chance. It made me feel confident." 

Omar is one of several scholarship students funded by The Lasell Fund. Donate to support students like him today at lasellalumni.org


In Their Words: First Generation Experiences

Thomas Morgan with students at the Lasell IC3Thomas Morgan
Assistant Director, Donahue Institute for Ethics, Diversity, and Inclusion

"I had a roommate issue in my freshman year and someone suggested that I talk to the dean of students, but I thought you only met with him if you were in trouble, so I didn't go. I didn't go to the career center until my junior year because I thought it was strictly a job placement service. I can translate that experience to help students who come into my office at Lasell. I don't think of any of their questions as silly, but rather an opportunity to say 'Let me help you with this because I understand how hard it can be and I think it is really impressive that you are the first person going to college in your family and embarking on this journey.'"

Jennifer L. Granger Sullivan with a studentJennifer L. Granger Sullivan
Director of Orientation and Student Activities 

"I'm currently in a doctoral program and so my first-gen journey is still ongoing. It follows you when you're still the first in your family to do it. When I was in grad school we were actually studying the different types of college experiences based on race, religion, gender, politics. On paper I looked like a white heterosexual female. You had to dig deeper to learn about my social economics and my first-generation status. That opened the door to do our jobs in higher education at a better level, to identify those things."

Omar Jimenez Soto '23Omar Jimenez Soto '23
Hospitality Management Student

"I wanted a school that made me feel at home. A community feeling. I got it at Lasell. Sometimes it can be difficult to talk with people who don't understand your story, or to see how people take things for granted. I want to be able to reward my parents with the knowledge that their struggles and hard work has paid off through my education.  It can be scary but it is important to not give up. I'll do whatever I need to become better in my field."