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Culture

They Are the First in Their Families to Attend College

This HBCU administrator says first-generation students enrolled during the pandemic are getting an education in survival.

Being the first person in your family to go to college is worth celebrating. However, it also comes with many challenges. Throw a pandemic into the mix and getting to college and through it can become daunting. William E. Hudson Jr., Ph.D., VP of Student Affairs at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, shares his perspective.

Many of our students make the same [income] or more than their entire family once they earn a degree from FAMU. We help them make a difference in their social mobility. But many are particularly vulnerable. When the country catches a cold, our first-generation students and low-income people catch pneumonia.

The pandemic affected students and entire families financially, emotionally, psychologically and academically. I've had students who went home to care for their siblings because their parents were hospitalized with COVID-19. One student lost their grandparent and a sibling to the disease. A student whose childcare fell through due to an outbreak at the center didn’t have the resources to miss school or work. Students who couldn’t participate in internships missed valuable experiences. Although some internships moved online, nothing is like face-to-face mentorship and learning.

Many of our students make the same [income] or more than their entire family once they earn a degree from FAMU. We help them make a difference in their social mobility. But many are particularly vulnerable.
WilliamEHudsonJr_HBCU campus admin DrHudson.jpg
William E. Hudson Jr.
Courtesy of William E. Hudson Jr.

Financially speaking, many students couldn’t afford the rising cost of health care, food and housing. Thankfully, the federal government provided some subsidies. University president Larry Robinson, Ph.D., dedicated funds to helping students stay in school, covering their school balances and providing financial assistance. We have seniors who were able to come back to school and graduate because of that.

Since our campus is in one of the poorest communities in the city, making access to health care was very important. We opened a testing site and a vaccination site on campus. We’ve provided testing and vaccination to over 600,000 people on and off campus, and we continue to do so. But food and housing insecurities persist. We saw an increase in students who were using our Farm Share program weekly, where local food banks provide food that we distribute.

We’ve also seen an increase in those using our mental health services. Some students lost three and four family members in one year. There’s more depression and anxiety. Those with added responsibilities as caregivers for parents and siblings go back and forth from home and use their financial resources to help the family. The impact on their classroom performance, energy and tolerance levels increases. Meanwhile, some counselors are choosing to transition to private practice because they can make more money and work from home. Tele–mental health counseling will become increasingly necessary.

University president Larry Robinson, Ph.D., dedicated funds to helping students stay in school, covering their school balances and providing financial assistance. We have seniors who were able to come back to school and graduate because of that.

Adjusting to being back with other people after being sequestered for two years has been a challenge for some students, especially in the residence halls. We’ve seen more roommate issues: sharing space, not respecting another’s privacy and things of that nature. That did not occur typically, pre-COVID.

Even as we respond to these challenges, I think we haven’t seen the total impact yet, because we’re not out of COVID.

Newcomers to campus may face these issues. If you are parenting a teen, especially one who will be the first in your family to go to college, don’t allow your child to take the easy way out when it comes to college prep. Often, these students are told that once they’ve fulfilled their graduation requirements, they don’t have to worry about anything. But if they want to go to college, they may benefit from dual enrollment, which is free education at a community college while [they’re] in high school. Participants can save money and get acclimated to the college experience. They can earn an A.A. degree by the time they graduate [from high school]. Encourage your teen to sign up for summer programs, whether on a college campus or at their high school, to keep them engaged with the academic curriculum, and incorporate fun activities too.

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