Project Encourages First-Generation Faculty to Share Their Stories

Susan Rivera and her two children making pizza at home
Psychology professor Susan Rivera, pictured with her children, shares her story on the First Generation Faculty website. (Marco Molinaro/UC Davis photo)

What First-Gen Faculty Can Do

About 40 percent of UC Davis undergraduates have staked their claims to be in the first generation of their families to earn four-year university degrees.

What the campus wants these students to know — and take heart from — is just how many faculty members have had that same experience.

So, Undergraduate Education is launching the First Generation Faculty project to build community among first-generation faculty members and encourage them to share their stories and insights with other faculty and students. The launch includes a luncheon forum this week (registration has closed for the Wednesday event), a website and T-shirts.

“UC Davis is really a first-generation community,” said Carolyn Thomas, vice provost and dean for Undergraduate Education.

In fall 2016, for example, more than 44 percent of entering undergraduates at UC Davis were first-generation college students. This includes about 2,300, or 41 percent, of new freshmen and about 1,875, or more than 53 percent, of transfer students.

The project website describes some of the challenges these students may experience as they navigate an unfamiliar academic culture with its own language and expectations: “Anxieties and impostor syndrome loom large. They may be dealing with family pressures to follow particular pathways. They may be intimidated by the idea of talking to professors.”

“One of the most important factors in encouraging our students to persist when they’re struggling is that feeling of affiliation,” Thomas said. “That feeling of belonging makes a huge difference.”

Carolyn Thomas in the #FirstGen College Grad T-shirt
Carolyn Thomas, vice provost and dean for Undergraduate Education, models one of the T-shirts being offered to first-generation faculty members. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo)

Until recently, she really hasn’t mentioned the fact that she, too, is a first-generation college graduate or talked with other faculty members about their experiences.

Now, the project invites first-generation faculty members to list themselves in the website’s searchable directory and even share their stories for the website and social media. At publication, more than 360 faculty — from across all 10 colleges and schools — were listed.

The website already tells the stories of several faculty members, including psychology professor Susan Rivera.

She grew up the youngest of 13 children in a family where there was no money to spare and no guidance for getting into college. Once at Indiana University–Bloomington, she sometimes felt like she was “faking it” in what was an unfamiliar world.

What made the difference for her was participating in a research opportunity for first-generation students and the mentorship of a professor who shared that she, too, sometimes felt like an impostor. “That cracked open the whole universe to me — that someone of her caliber and strength could also sometimes feel that way.”

Thomas said the project emerged from discussions among her UC counterparts. UC Irvine, too, has a similar effort.

The UC Office of the President is providing T-shirts for first-generation faculty members, and UC Davis is encouraging our faculty to wear them on special days, like the first day of instruction each quarter and this Saturday's Decision UC Davis for admitted students.

Highlighting First-Gen Students 

The Educational Opportunity Program on campus is building awareness about first-generation students and celebrating their journeys and accomplishments through the 1st of Many campaign. It also offers best practices for supporting the students. Posters feature first-generation students, and peer-led activities will be held this quarter.

For more information, contact Julie Agosto, assistant director of EOP and Retention Services at the Student Academic Success Center.

At Wednesday’s forum, six panelists will share their experiences as first-generation college graduates. There will also be a discussion of best practices for teaching and mentoring first-generation students.

“As a university, if we want our first-generation students to succeed, we need to make the classroom a place where they can be seen and succeed,” Thomas said.

“We want the first-generation faculty to be our ambassadors for teaching practices for all faculty,” she added. “We want them to model those teaching practices.”

The website also lists resources such as scholarly literature and news articles, and suggestions for teaching first-generation students.

Rivera herself encourages faculty members to be open to students who have different backgrounds. “There may be real talent there,” she said. “There may be the need for a little extra mentoring, but the reward is great.”

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