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Campaign aims to make first-generation students feel welcome

September 10, 2018

If you’re a first-generation student at NIU, we’ve got your back.

Efforts are underway to create a culture of first-generation awareness at NIU.

More than half of NIU’s undergraduate students are among the first generation in their family to attend a four-year college. But national statistics show at least 75 percent of first-generation college students fail to graduate in four years or less.

Those behind a first-generation awareness campaign aim to beat those odds.

Recent first-generation welcome events, sponsored by First- and Second-Year Experience, brought students together with faculty, staff and alumni.

“It really is a group effort to get faculty, staff and students involved in the whole concept, letting first-generation students know we’re friendly to their needs,” said Kelly Smith, director of  First- and Second-Year Experience at NIU.

They mingled and learned of the resources available here, including the Breaking Barriers bi-weekly support group for first-generation college students, the Mentoring Valuable Peers program, future career events, supportive and accessible NIU policies, financial aid and scholarship information and more.

“The most positive feedback included interactions with faculty,” Smith said. “It is one of the top experiences that retain students, having positive connection and interaction with faculty and staff. A lot of first-generation students can experience the imposter syndrome in regard to engaging faculty and staff: ‘Am I good enough? Can I talk to them?’”

A book that highlights the experiences of a first-generation college student, “Make Your Home Among Strangers” by Jennine Capó Crucet–and the featured book for the common reading experience at NIU–actually was part of the inspiration for the first-generation campaign.

The book follows Lizet, a first-generation Cuban American and daughter of Cuban immigrants, through her challenging journey as she navigates the all-encompassing process of becoming a first-generation college student.

First-generation students often find themselves having to explain the demands of college to their families, as well as the importance of it. They tend to choose majors they think will lead to stable and financially lucrative careers based on the expectations of their family members.

A first-generation student in his freshman year at NIU, 18-year-old Cameron Johnson of Capron said going to college wasn’t really talked about in his family.

“These days, the more you look into what you want to do, you need a degree,” he said.

Knowing he’d have to pay for college on his own, he did well in high school, earned a scholarship and joined the National Guard. He’d liked to become a police officer.

Like Johnson, Lisa Lilianstrom of Streamwood, a first-generation transfer student majoring in journalism, said the welcome event drew her in because of its emphasis on students like her.

“I love how it’s just for first-generation students,” she said. “Having parents who never got their degrees is definitely hard. You have to do most of the research and work yourself. Resources are helpful.”

At the welcome events, first-generation faculty, staff and students shared their experiences, aiming to make first-generation students feel comfortable and supported at NIU. The events also provided students with easy access to services and information, as well as encouragement to get involved.

Mark Pietrowski, director of Continuing and Professional Education, answers questions from first-generation students and provides them with tips to help them succeed at NIU.

“It can be a tough haul,” said Mark Pietrowski, director of NIU Continuing and Professional Education.

Pietrowski knew he’d have to pay his own way through college while living rent free with his parents, so he worked full-time, transferring after community college to NIU, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“In the beginning, really explore what else is out there. Sometimes you can surprise yourself,” he advised students before encouraging them to, “Ask me about anything. No question is off-limits.”

Given out at the welcome events, laminated “I am a first-generation college graduate” door decorations are available for faculty and staff at the First- And Second-Year Experience office in Altgeld Hall 100. Also in demand at the welcome events, first-generation T-shirts can be requested there as well.

Future related events include “Unmasked: Facing the Imposter Syndrome” from 5 to 7 p.m. Nov. 1 in the Holmes Student Center. This event aims to help you learn about the imposter syndrome, how it might be affecting you or others and ways to overcome the feeling of, “I don’t belong here. And, I think everybody knows it.” Advanced registration for Jobs PLUS events is required here:

A First Generation Student Success Conference from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 9 in the conference center of the NIU Naperville campus will bring together college and university professionals who work with first-generation students to share program success. The conference will celebrate the best and promising practices implemented that support recruitment, retention and graduation of first-generation students.

To find out more about NIU’s first-generation college students, resources and programming that can help them succeed, visit