First generation college students: You are not alone.
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ATLANTA– Since Charbel Aoun began attending Georgia State University in 2013, he’s been beating the odds. He is the first in his family to attend college and relies on scholarships to afford higher education expenses.
Aoun said being a first-generation college student has been rewarding and challenging.
“When it comes to applying to financial aid and taking the right classes for your major, you don’t have that sort of back bone for an older sibling or an adult to help guide you in the right direction,” he said.
He is one of the 26 percent of first-generation college students at Georgia State, according to the university’s I’m First page. However, even though 54 percent of Georgia State students graduate within six years, first-generation college students face a graduation gap.
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The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles found in 2011 students who were the first to attend college in their family are 14.1 percent less likely to graduate, according to their Completing College: Assessing Graduation at Four-Year Institutions report.
Last semester Melanie Harris founded Gen1: First-Generation Programs to provide first-generation college students with resources to help them have a seamless transition into college.
“Since I started a year and a half ago, there was really nothing that existed for first-generation students, and there is 4,000 first gen students at Georgia State,” she said. “The resources that are in Student Support Services is a grant supported program. So, once their resources are all allocated they can’t take in more students. So, we needed something that was for more of the general student body.”
Aoun said first-generation college students must be committed to stay in college. To him, these students attend universities to not just obtain a degree but to also become successful.
“First-generation students have to be dedicated. They have to really have a purpose in life when it comes to this sort of thing, because any student can go to school [and] get a degree. But then it is what do you do with that degree? And where are you going to go from there?” he said
He said his normal day begins when he wakes up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. to take the bus to Georgia State. Once he arrives to campus, he seeks stress relief by working out in the Recreation Center. Afterward, he cracks open his textbooks to study, prepares organization meetings, attends numerous classes then waits to get called in to work from 5 to 9 p.m. at an optometrist office.
“For me it’s really coming down to time management, and I think that’s a true quality that a lot of first-generation students have that makes first-generation students successful,” he said. “Because without it and not being able to know when to do something, where to do something [and] how to do something, that is what makes it crucial.”
First-generation college students are more likely to work long hours than students whose parents went to college, with 22.2 percent of them working more than 20 hours a week, according to a 2007 Higher Education Research Institute report.
Aoun’s father is the only one who works in his family, and he said occasionally supports his family by “picking up the slack” for some bills.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford college without the scholarships,” he said.
Aoun is a Coca Cola First Generation Scholarship recipient, which is awarded to incoming freshmen. The scholarship is $20,000 and is given to students in increments of $5,000 per year, according to the Georgia State scholarship website.
“To be able to apply for as many financial aid scholarship opportunities, that is the only thing I can do at this point. Because it’s the first-generation problem,” he said. “If it is really a $1,000 or $2,000 difference to attending school or not attending school, I better figure out how to get that money from some sort of scholarship or foundation.”
Even with scholarships, Aoun is still concerned about how he can afford the increasing costs of college. This sentiment is commonly felt by first-generation college students, 22.7 percent to be exact, according to the 2007 Higher Education Research Institute report.
Above and beyond
Along with juggling class and work, Aoun is also the founder of an on campus organization called Colleges Against Cancer, a participant in the Student Library Advisory Council and a student assistant for the Center of Instructional Innovation.
“It is how motivated you are to keep up with everything. And yeah there are times when it’s like I can’t focus on this right now,” he said. “I’ve got to deal with this family situation, or it’s like work is being annoying. So, I’ve got to get to studying and not worrying about work.”
He said he has never wished he wasn’t a first-generation college student, because he appreciates the opportunities Georgia State has provided him since he is the first in his family to attend college.
“I am so proud of not only how much I have done, but I’m just proud of how there are so many things I can do and so many that I am being offered,” he said.
Harris said Gen1 offers various types of support to first-generation students.
“There’s a mentorship program where we partner mostly freshmen with upperclassmen, graduate students, faculty or staff members. We do workshops on various topics [like] Honors College. We did student involvement,” she said. “We also have family resources for parents or family members of first-generation students, so that they can get informed of what their students are going through.”
Georgia State’s Student Support Services also provides tutoring to first-generation students, according to Harris.
She said on Nov. 16, Gen 1 plans on unveiling a website geared to first-generation students.
“I am working with admissions right now to create a website just for first-generation students and their parents, with information on how to apply and how to deal with college…because there is nothing out right now specifically geared to first generation students,” she said.
Once Aoun graduates, he said he wants to attend medical school, because he desires to dedicate himself to helping people.
“Giving back as much as you have been given is truly the reason why I am still doing what I am doing,” he said.
He said first-generation college students should ask for help from the university, if they need scholarships or assistance with gaining work.
“Always go for what you love the most, because I know most students are not going to be as academically dedicated,” he said. “There are so many resources not only at Georgia State, but also at other universities.”
Nov. 11, 2015