First-Gen Survival Tips for October and November

October 22, 2013

What works for you? Share your tips and lessons in the comments below.

October is a rollercoaster ride for many first-generation freshmen. Six to eight weeks into the academic calendar, many feel lost and alone in a foreign land; for some, freshmen freakout may be in full swing. Then comes fall break, which offers a few days off from regular classes and brings many mixed emotions.

For those who are living in dorms and don’t have the money to make it home, fall break can intensify feelings of loneliness and isolation. Those who do visit home may find that complex emotions arise from being back in their old environment, and then returning again to campus. Commuters and community college students often get no break at all, and instead use the time to catch up on the hefty responsibilities of school, family and work.

And then there are midterm exams.

What can colleges do to support first-generation students at this difficult time? We asked three experts.

Nicole Edmondson
Director of the Northumberland satellite campus of Luzerne County Community College (LCCC)

Schools can build community and connections among students by officially welcoming them back during the end of September or early October.  “We host a Welcome Back Bash that runs for a full week,” says Nicole.  “This includes free coffee, snacks, and pizza throughout the day, as well a t-shirt give-away, and a meeting with the president of the college.”

Have faculty submit early reports to counselors to alert them of students needing academic assistance. This prompts the counselors to make a phone call to the student to offer help, rather than waiting for the student to seek it out.

Have a strong presence on social media outlets, such as Facebook, to advertise upcoming events and tutoring and other support services, especially in the first few weeks of semester.

Encourage students to join various groups and clubs on campus so they feel a sense of belonging.

Hold walk-in hours with academic counselors and open a learning center that offers professional tutoring in all subject areas by appointment or walk-in.

Make sure students know about the professional tutors and counselors available to them.  Tutors, for example, visit classrooms and give a brief summary of the services available and also offer workshops on time management skills, study skills, and other topics.


A.T. Miller
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Diversity at Cornell University

Develop specific programming for first-generation students during fall break, like a dinner or overnight event where students can share feelings and debrief about what it has been like so far.

Organize a long weekend in a retreat facility.  Include workshop exercises about goals and ‘who you are becoming.’ Discuss issues like budgeting, homesickness, academic struggles and successes, and developing a campus network of personal support.

Have a sendoff and formal welcome back for students after October break. The sendoff is a good time for a discussion about practical matters like how students are getting home and getting back to school as well as their plans and expectations for the visit.  After break is over, have a celebratory “Welcome Back” that allows time for students to discuss what it was like to visit home, and what to expect next in their life on campus.

According to A.T., the welcome back event is a good time to remind students about the services and academic support available to them.  It is also a good time to ask them to name their three best friends on campus and the three coolest staff/faculty members they’ve met. “That’s a great way to get them thinking about their support system,” he says.

Students benefit greatly from hearing about the connections and strategies others are using. “Discussions like this reinforce the importance of not going it alone and give students the chance to share mutual knowledge,” A.T. explains.

For students who are staying on campus, organize a fun outing like hiking, bowling, cooking together or even a group study hall. “Students who are worried about grades, or embarrassed about not going anywhere can hole up over break,” A.T. says. “Bringing together students who stay on campus for break builds community and can help them make further connections. It's also practical and meets a need.”


Leslie Hall
irst-generation student and MSW candidate at Howard University

“For first-generation students, October can be a major ‘make or break’ time,” Leslie says. It’s important that both schools and students themselves understand that issues specific to first gen students often arise in acute form at this point in the semester, especially during freshman year.

Leslie echos the importance of supporting first-generation students in building leadership and collaboration skills, which in turn foster a sense of community for students.  

“My undergraduate institution, Bowie State University, does a great job with this,” he says.  “They take the first-generation students to a beautiful campground for a few days to do teambuilding and have an intimate discussion about their college experiences. [Students] talk in group circles around campfires and lakeside, and this allows [them] to build a sense of family and a support system for ourselves.”

For students, Leslie suggests: “October is a good time to meet with each professor individually to discuss your academic progress and what supports you can access.” Know how you’re doing—don’t just guess.

As Nicole Edmonson noted, schools need to inform students what’s available. But not all schools do this well, so students themselves should feel empowered to ask. This is important all year, but especially leading up to fall break and mid-terms.

Also, many schools offer additional opportunities to meet with academic advisors in October and November, so be sure to take advantage of it.

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This blog is part of the joint Demos and SparkAction project, First to Finish College.