Being first in your family to forge a new path in the world isn’t always easy, but it can be inspiring.
Just ask Tatum Hastings. Hastings is a second year natural resources management major who will be the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree when she graduates in 2021. She is among the one in four undergraduates at Colorado State University who identify as first generation.
“Being first gen is a new challenge for me, and I always feel bad saying that because I don’t want my parents to feel like I don’t understand they’ve had to overcome challenges of their own,” said Hastings. “At first I thought being first gen would be an obstacle because it was a new experience that I wasn’t sure how to navigate. But with the support I’ve received from CSU and the encouragement from my parents, I see being first as an inspiration for my family and for me.”
National First-Generation Day
That’s what National First-Generation College Celebration day is all about – encouraging students like Hastings, acknowledging their achievements and reinforcing a national commitment to foster their success. This is the second year the Council for Opportunity in Education, in partnership with the Center for First-Generation Student Success, has asked higher education institutions to host special events on their campuses on Nov. 8 to honor first-gen students. CSU’s First Generation University Initiative (FGUI) held an event on the Lory Student Center Plaza to do just that with cookies, swag, a podcast and fun photo opportunities.
“We want our students to take away that they are being celebrated not just here, but across the country. They are being affirmed and recognized, and we are proud of them,” said Oscar Felix, Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Diversity, and chairperson of the FGUI. “Today’s event is first and foremost a celebration of what first-gen students bring to CSU, and how their life experiences enrich the classroom and campus for all of us who work, teach and learn beside them.”
Felix says the FGUI is composed of a group of staff and faculty volunteers who develop coordinated communications and outreach strategies, encourage collaborations across departments, and focus on educating students about available resources. It is one of the many programs and initiatives implemented through the Office of the Vice President for Diversity. The FGUI is launching a new multi-year awareness and education campaign on campus to time with this year’s national first-gen day. Among other things, the “1 in 4” campaign includes Proud to Be First Gen stickers, posters and a newly designed website (FirstGeneration.colostate.edu/) with information about the initiative, resources for faculty on mentoring and other tips for engaging first-gen students, and a call for faculty and staff to get involved in the initiative. The FGUI was initially formed several years ago after a message from Tony Frank which asked faculty and staff to identify if they were first-gen college graduates.
Thirty years of paving the way for first-gen students
Felix has been overseeing efforts to design and launch the campaign for more than a year, and its rollout is bittersweet. He will be retiring at the end of December after 30 years at CSU. All those years have been dedicated to promoting first-gen success either through the Access Center, TRIO or FGUI.
“I was hired by CSU in 1988 to drive around Northern Colorado to visit high schools and middle schools to engage youth in thinking about college,” said Felix. “I remember waking up early and driving a long time to Fort Lupton, Brush and other areas to tell students that higher education is for them, and working to help them get here. That included deciphering the mystery of college, and driving students and their families to college campuses and events around the state so they could get a glimpse into the campus experience.”
It’s never been lost on Felix, not from that first road trip, the importance of helping first-gen youth to understand they can forge a new path for their family’s legacy that includes a college degree. Felix, who also is first gen, only went to one college fair in high school and that was because a friend’s dad drove him there. But it was enough to make an impression and a connection.
“In my work I have always been struck by what our first-gen alum say when they come back to visit. They remember in detail the conversations they had about their dreams and aspirations,” said Felix. “That’s because we made a difference, and our faculty and staff made a connection. They remember if we were kind, if we were thoughtful, if we were welcoming. That’s what they remember, and that’s what we should always remember – to engage first-gen students through that lens.”