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It’s Not Easy Being the First, But It’s Worth It!

By Chelsea Jones, Associate Director, Student Programs, Center for Student Opportunity, I’m First

If you are a teacher, you are probably in the midst of the college search and selection process frenzy. Writing letters of recommendation. Helping students put together resumes and activities lists. Correcting students and letting them know that it’s “FAFSA,” not “FASFA.”

A good number of your students probably have daily arguments with their parents around the dinner table about which parent’s alma mater they should attend. That’s sort of a cool conversation to have, right? But what about your students who don’t come from a background of their parents having a college degree? How do you think those conversations go? Let me fill you in:

Nana: “Chelsea, did you start filling out your college applications yet?”

Chelsea: *long sigh* “Yeah, Nana. I’ve started. But there is a lot of stuff I am not sure how to fill out, so I haven’t finished yet.”

Nana: “Oh. Well, you know I can’t help you. But I’m sure you’ll figure it out. *walks out of kitchen* “And don’t forget to wash those dishes!”

…And scene! The example you just read was a small sample of the conversations that happened in my household, between my grandmother and I. I was raised by my grandmother, who didn’t attend college. My father didn’t attend college, and my mother never finished high school. College-going wasn’t something that was in our bloodline. These are conversations your students are having daily with their parents, siblings, guardians, etc. The prospect of being the first in the family to attend college is amazing. But the know-how isn’t there within the family and community. So when you have students who don’t really know much about the college application process or seem a little discouraged, it doesn’t mean they aren’t taking their future seriously: they genuinely don’t have the know-how or resources to navigate the process. Teachers can begin helping students through the process with the help of I’m First.

Before I get into all of the awesome resources that I’m First has for you and your first-generation students, let’s get into some numbers to explain why this “being the first in the family to attend college” hot topic is of great importance. Fifteen million students are enrolled in a postsecondary institution. Of the 15 million enrolled, about 4.5 million (or 30 percent) are low-income, first-generation students. Sounds pretty good, right? First-generation, low-income students are getting to college! Unfortunately, it takes a pretty bad turn. Of the 4.5 million first-generation, low-income students enrolled, 89% of those students will NOT earn their bachelor’s degree by the age of 24. As you can see, first-generation students are going to college, but unfortunately, are not persisting through.

All too often, first-generation college students lack access to good information and support to successfully navigate the college search and application process and access the colleges that are most committed to their success. This is where I’m First and its resources come in to save the day! The awesome organization I work for, I’m First (an initiative of Center for Student Opportunity), is committed to providing guidance and resources to not only help first-generation students get to college, but also connecting students with colleges and universities that are committed to supporting students through college.

On I’m First, you and your AVID students can get a great deal of information that will be extremely beneficial during the college application process. Let me take you through an overview of what I’m First can offer educators and students:

I’m First Stories: Why not use YouTube to encourage first-generation students to attend college? That’s what the I’m First story campaign does. It allows first-generation graduates, supporters, parents, and aspiring first-generation college students to upload a video of themselves discussing what it means to have been, or to be, the first in their family to go to college. Teachers can show some of these videos to students as motivation and to show that others have accomplished graduating as first gen, and they can too! Heck, use a class session to have students record their own I’m First videos.

I’m First Dashboard: Here is where the good stuff starts. Once signed up for I’m First, students can begin creating student profiles, highlighting all of their GPA , high school rank, awards, extracurricular, work experience, and volunteering awesomeness. As a supporter, educators and parents can create a profile (not as detailed as the student profile) that will allow them to experience I’m First, as well. Students will also be provided grade-by-grade checklists on their dashboard that will guide them to what they should be doing to prepare for college, from 9th–12th grade. So now, students can’t use the excuse of not having anything to do!

College Search: Okay, seriously, this is the fun part. I’m First has over 170 college partners, ranging from the Ivy Leagues to large public state schools, which are committed to providing resources to make sure students are supported to, and through, graduation! Students will be able to customize their college search by state, region, majors, etc. The best part about the college search and profile section is the highlighted programs and resources that are on that college campus. Want to learn about colleges that have fly-in programs to get students on their campuses? We’ve got it. Want to find colleges and universities that have first-year transition programs to ensure that students are properly prepared and acclimated to their college campus? Yup, we’ve got that, too!

Q&A: With the college application and selection process comes a ton of questions. Some are very vague and general. Some are extremely detailed. No matter the college-related question, the Q&A section of I’m First is where students can come and ask their questions. The I’m First staff, along with our college and university partners, take the time to answer the questions and provide the most accurate answers to help guide students!

Blog: The blog is where students can read about and watch the experiences of first-generation students. Our I’m First bloggers are the lucky eight students who were selected as recipients of the annual I’m First Scholarship (open in April to all seniors, by the way!). These students chronicle the good and the bad that they face as they navigate the college life as the first in their family to attend. Our students come from all different ethnicities, backgrounds, states, etc., so there will be something or someone that each student will be able to relate to. Along with the blog, I’m First hosts monthly Google+ Hangouts on Air, where students are able to tune in to see a panel of the I’m First bloggers, along with education professionals in all areas, discuss key issues that first-generation students need to know.

So, I’ve said a ton and a half. I hope I’ve given you some good ideas to get your brain juices flowing with different ways to help first-generation students prepare for, and succeed through, college. Remember, ImFirst.org is a great place to start!


Following three years as an intern, recent college graduate Chelsea Jones joined the Center for Student Opportunity full-time as Student Support Associate. Previously, Chelsea worked for First Focus, a policy organization focusing on children and families, and Heads Up DC, a non-profit providing rigorous after-school and summer programs for elementary school children in underserved neighborhoods. Chelsea was a past participant of the Goldman Sachs Scholars Alumni Program, a program that assists under-represented college students transitioning from high school to college. Chelsea is an alumna of Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), an academic and cultural enrichment program for low-income, high-achieving high school students.

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