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First-generation college students eager, hopeful

Aug. 26, 2014 - 01:04PM   |  
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AUGUSTA, GA. — In the weeks leading up to her first day of college, Lauren Serrano had the typical jitters.

She was afraid of getting lost on campus, unsure about what her professors would expect from her, and nervous about taking on a full course load her first semester.

All of those anxieties aside, what Serrano, 18, felt more than anything was pride. The daughter of Cuban-born parents, Serrano has become the first in her family to attend college, and with that accomplishment, has fulfilled her parents’ greatest wish for their child.

“They always told me they wanted me to do better than they did, that if they had the opportunity to go to college they would have and that I shouldn’t pass it up for anything,” Serrano said. “They want me to do something with my life and get farther than they did.”

As the fall semester recently commenced at Georgia Regents University, it brought more than 760 freshmen to campus, many of them first-generation college students.

These students, widely defined as those whose parents did not receive a four-year degree, are attending college at higher rates than ever before, but require more support to complete a degree than traditional students.

Today about 30 percent of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions are first generation, but 89 percent of them will not complete a bachelor’s degree within six years from graduating high school, according to I’m First, an initiative out of the nonprofit Center for Student Opportunity.

Chelsea M. Jones, associate director for student programs at the Center and I’m First, said the low completion rate is often a result of students being unprepared leaving high school. Without an example in front of them, students can struggle with the entire college experience — from registering for classes to time management.

“A lot of times, first generation students feel alone in the process,” Jones said.

However, Jones said there are proven strategies and outreach programs colleges can implement to boost graduation and completion rates.

She said summer bridge programs can help acclimate students to a college setting, and advisement programs on campus can track students’ progress and help them feel supported.

“One major thing is making students feel welcome as soon as they get on campus,” Jones said. “A lot of times people celebrate first generation students for getting into college, and once they get to school it’s kind of like they’re on their own.”

Last year, GRU implemented its 4 Years 4 U program that pushes all students to finish a degree in four years. In 2012, the year before GRU was formed, only 7 percent of students at the former Augusta State University graduated in four years while only 25 percent completed a bachelor’s degree in six years.

The 4 Years 4 U program pairs each student with an adviser who monitors progress and encourages students to take on full course loads every semester so they graduate on time.

Benjamin Evans, 18, said that as a freshman he is already preparing for graduation by taking five courses his first semester while working two jobs.

The first generation student said both of his parents pushed him to attend college even when Evans said he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and join the military.

“My dad wouldn’t hear it,” said Evans, a Harlem High School graduate. “He made it pretty clear that if I’m going to join the military, I had to go to college first. He didn’t go to college, and he wants that for me.”

Now Evans, a communications major, plans to follow his passion and pursue a career in theater performing in plays or on television.

He said he’s ready for the high rigor of college and hopes it’s all he has expected it to be.

“In college, from what I’ve heard, you’re not only taught by professors, but you ultimately teach yourself,” he said. “It’s a more grown-up way of learning, and I’m ready for that.”

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