Thriving Diversity: Support for First-Generation College Students

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“This is so easy,” a voice from the other side of the table says. I can feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. My ears feel warm. I try to focus on the paper in front of me. I can’t seem to understand a single word. This is my first tutorial class. We have been given a problem set to solve, and this is the first time–followed by many, many others–that I felt behind and isolated. I decide to seek help. I arrive on a Thursday afternoon in the Math Help Room. The room is packed. The small space is dense and warm from all the students crammed into one spot. Students stand lining the walls. Eyes exhausted but searching desperately for answers. Everyone has a laptop open. Calculus homework is pulled up on every webpage. Two tutors are quickly jumping between the small, connected classrooms. Students walk in, tired from a long day of lectures. They scan the room and leave. Desperation, exhaustion, and panic envelop the room. Students want help, yet they do not receive it enough. As a first-generation student, seeking help is hard, but finding adequate assistance has been harder. The University of Notre Dame should be providing more support for students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college.

In this essay, I argue that Notre Dame should give more financial assistance to support programs for first-generation students, such as the Transformational Leaders Program (TLP), the Office of Student Enrichment (OSE), and the Learning Resource Center (LRC). Placing priority on these kinds of programs is important not only because they would help first-generation college students succeed academically, socially, and financially, but because it would open opportunities for more diversification of the university. First, I will outline the problem created by limited resources for first-generation students. Second, I will explain the positive effects of support programs for these students. Third, I will suggest that Notre Dame provide more funding for the expansion and improvement of these programs.

Separation from family for the first-generation college student is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a family may be proud of their member going to college. On the other hand, the student may feel coerced to always do their absolute best. In the article, “How First-Generation College Students Adjust to College,” researcher Melinda Gibbons of the University of Tennessee writes of a participant's struggle with feeling motivated yet pressured by her family: “My mom and dad had worked so hard going through multiple jobs just to put me and my three other siblings through school. I am the first one to actually go to a university … so it’s really on my shoulders. I can prove that all their work is not in vain” (500). A tremendous amount of pressure arises from being a first-generation college student. Many students refrain from reaching out for help for fear of disappointing their parents.

Additionally, most first-generation college students are ill-prepared for college expectations. In The Hidden Curriculum, a sample revealed that 44 percent label themselves as “less academically prepared” than their peers in their second year (Gable 28). Rachel Gable–director of institutional effectiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University, author, and graduate of Harvard University–noted that universities, especially those held in high prestige and made up of a significant number of legacy students, have a hidden curriculum. A hidden curriculum is a certain set of indirect rules that people follow to succeed in college. The hidden curriculum is not concrete, but rather “a site of contestation concerning what the institution represents, whom it serves, and how it defines success” (Gable ix). Since first-generation college students are the first in their families to attend college, they often lack the necessary knowledge for succeeding. According to Dr. Paul Thayer’s article, “Retention of Students from First Generation and Low Income Background,” first-generation college students “have limited access to information about the college experience, either first-hand or from relatives” (4). They are also “likely to lack knowledge of time management, college finances and budget management, and the bureaucratic operations of higher education” (4). In accordance with this, the article, “First-Generation College Students: A Literature Review” states, “[Low-income, minority, and first-generation students] often do not understand the steps necessary to prepare for higher education which include knowing about how to finance a college education, to complete basic admissions procedures, and to make connections between career goals and educational requirements” (Tym 3). First-generation students have a hard time adapting to college and learning the necessary habits to succeed. Although first-generation students struggle to learn the rules of the hidden curriculum, most non-first-generation college students have the privilege of having this set of rules passed down to them from their parents. Whether it is directly or indirectly, academically educated parents set an example for succeeding that their children learn and replicate to the family’s advantage.

At Notre Dame, nearly 20 percent of the student body does not have this advantage, because they are “First generation/Pell/<$65,000 household income” (Undergraduate Admissions). While considering the importance of support programs for underrepresented and underprivileged students such as first-generation students, it is crucial to reflect upon the University of Notre Dame’s mission statement. In the mission statement, it states, “The intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students . . . What the University asks of all its scholars and students, however, is not a particular creedal affiliation, but a respect for the objectives of Notre Dame and a willingness to enter into the conversation that gives it life and character” (Mission). Through this mission statement, Notre Dame is implying the need for different people to bring about new ideas, conversations, and an inclusive environment on campus. In providing more resources for first-generation students, more people of different backgrounds will not only begin to see Notre Dame as a possibility but will be willing to go through the process knowing that they will gain support when admitted. Appealing to these programs for first-generation students will help the university diversify. After all, most first-generation students are low-income or from a minority background. Melinda Gibbons states that “[first-generation college students] represent about one-quarter of all traditional college-aged students and they present with unique needs and strengths. They are more likely to be students of color, tend to be from lower-income families, and have higher attrition rates from college” (489). In supporting programs, the University of Notre Dame will be providing encouragement and assistance to a growing diverse student population.

A current program that seeks to diversify Notre Dame and highlights mentorship support is the Transformational Leaders Program. The mission statement explains that this program “serves students’ academic, social, and spiritual development” by making sure students know about different resources that fit their individual needs. The mission’s aim is to assist students in achieving their academic goals while “staying healthy, grounded, and connected” (Transformational Leaders Program). Through this program, students of Notre Dame are able to gain a mentor. The groups of students under mentors’ supervision are called cohorts. Mentors often organize events for these cohorts in which students can meet new people. This program also has tutoring for a wide array of classes throughout the week. One of the biggest problems thus far is the mentor-to-mentee ratio. My current cohort is about 40 students. This means that one mentor has to guide 40 students of all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of problems, stay up to date, and actively seek out opportunities for all 40 students. In addition, this high volume of students may make it difficult for all students to participate in one-on-one meetings. By providing more funding, Notre Dame will allow the Transformational Leaders Program to hire more mentors. Perhaps the reason this isn't already happening is that Notre Dame underestimated the number of students that would accept the invitation to join TLP. However, if Notre Dame wants to live up to its ideals of supporting increasing diversity, then it will invest more money in the Transformational Leaders Program. In turn, more students will be able to receive guidance and support and mentors will be able to be more involved in counseling students.

Like the Transformational Leaders Program, the Office of Student Enrichment supports low-income students, but in a financial way. The mission statement for this program is “to enrich the student experience of limited-resource Notre Dame students through informing, including, and investing in developmental programming and financial access” (Office of Student Enrichment). For example, OSE helps students purchase necessary materials, such as calculators and winter clothing, and also encourages involvement in social campus community events by paying for football tickets and club dues. The Office of Student Enrichment also has special events, such as FLI week, which is a week full of activities in support of first-generation low-income students. Notre Dame should continue to provide adequate funding for OSE so that the program can continue providing students with the materials they need to succeed academically and the experiences they need to succeed socially. In addition, with proper funding, the events that the Office of Student Enrichment leads will increase awareness of first-generation low-income college students.

Another major resource that Notre Dame should further support is the Learning Resource Center for tutoring. The struggle with tutoring can be summarized by a participating student who talked about her advanced curriculum. She mentioned not needing tutoring in high school, because understanding the content “just sort of came naturally.” However, in college where she was “learning things that are so far beyond [her] comprehension,” tutoring was a necessity now to understand her classes. It was hard for her to find a tutor that worked with her schedule and was in her discipline (Gibbons et al. 494). Despite the fact that LRC is an ally to students who need assistance, there is not enough availability. The Notre Dame Learning Resource Center website states that “students can register for only one 1:1 private tutoring session per week” (Center for University Advising). With students balancing up to five or more classes, having to choose one class to receive help on for one hour may not be helpful. On the good side, there are other options available such as drop-in tutoring which consists of study hall or “math rooms.” However, these areas can get easily packed and chaotic and it may be hard to receive help among a crowd of students. It is likely that Notre Dame has overlooked this issue since there are so many tutoring centers and study halls. They may not be aware of those that are exceeding a reasonable capacity. Notre Dame needs to recognize that tutoring is in high demand, especially for core classes. The university should closely track the use of these tutoring rooms. Once they collect the data, they can see that they need to devote more resources to provide the crucial help that students need. By discovering how many students are using tutoring the university can properly budget according to the demand. If the university wants to help students learn, then it will ensure that LRC receives more funding, so that more tutors can be hired and availability can increase.

Some may argue that since a student was accepted, they should have arrived at the university with the requirements necessary for a successful higher education. They may say that in filling out applications, prospective students are declaring that they are skilled and knowledgeable enough to succeed despite the rigor. Additionally, many of the universities that are held in high prestige are research universities, such as the University of Notre Dame. If research is the main goal of a research university, why should it place its money on teaching students instead of using it to fund investigations and experiments? Students should be responsible for their own education. They accepted this responsibility in applying for a university.

All great researchers start somewhere. In creating an environment for curiosity and encouraging students who want to learn, the University of Notre Dame will be nurturing the researchers of the future and opening doors for many people. There is a reason such a large emphasis is placed on diversity. Encouraging diversity brings about new people, new ideas, and new perspectives. In the article “The Benefits of Diversity,” author and researcher Daryl Smith points out that “Students in environments that are structurally and curricularly diverse develop more complex and critical thinking skills and actually learn more. [Studies] found that the presence of diverse students enhances the educational experience of all students, leading to the broadening of perspectives, increased exposure to alternative viewpoints, and more complex discussions and analysis” (19). In providing programs that welcome students of contrasting backgrounds, Notre Dame is creating a campus of students that are more aware and analytical, which are essential traits of a good researcher.

In order to better support first-generation students, Notre Dame should provide more funding and advertising for programs like the Transformational Leaders Program, the Office of Student Enrichment, and the Learning Resource Center tutoring. These three programs cover the three critical aspects of providing an environment for first-generation college students to flourish. Through TLP, Notre Dame advances mentorship. In terms of educational support, Notre Dame should consider making larger spaces for tutoring. An example of this is the Math Room. Additionally, hiring more well-trained tutors will in turn create more availability. The funding and increased awareness of these programs will ensure that first-generation low-income students get the support they need.

In order to provide more funding to these programs, the University of Notre Dame can add first-generation support as a designation to its donation website. In the past, Notre Dame has reached out to parents of current students at Notre Dame, alumni, and other supporters asking for “gifts” or donations to support the student body. There are currently three different funds: Notre Dame Fund, Rockne Athletics Fund, and Financial Aid. There are also smaller sections called “Giving Societies” (Give to ND). In order to support first-generation programs, Notre Dame could add a fund with that title or could make subsections for the three current programs that most support first-generation students. Additionally, in the past, Notre Dame has offered shamrock pins, collector’s lanyards, and bumper stickers as incentives for people to donate. Clubs, like 1st-G ND, which support first-generation students, can design different donation gifts for donors. These donation gifts could even be sold on campus to fundraise and increase awareness of first-generation college students. Through this method, the University of Notre Dame can receive direct donations for the Transformational Leaders Program, the Office of Student Enrichment, and the Learning Resource Center. In addition, people may be more likely to donate or make larger donations since they are able to identify where their money is going, and they may relate to or feel empathy toward first-generation college students.

In providing academic, social, and financial aid, the University of Notre Dame will be opening doors to people of various backgrounds. Since its mission is to create a diverse environment, Notre Dame should advocate for resources that help students who are struggling. A final and perhaps the most major goal for Notre Dame should be to increase its awareness of the people that need help. They need to realize that their goal of diversification requires more than just acceptance letters. This goal requires programs that will help those who are accepted succeed.

Works Cited

Center for University Advising. The University of Notre Dame. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.

Gable, Rachel. Chapter 7. The Hidden Curriculum : First Generation Students at Legacy Universities. Princeton University Press, 2021. Accessed 18 Oct. 2022.

Give to ND. The University of Notre Dame. Accessed 5 Nov. 2022.

Inclusive Campus Survey Results. The University of Notre Dame, Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Mission. The University of Notre Dame Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.

Office of Student Enrichment. The University of Notre Dame, Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Rondini, Ashley C., et al. Chapter 5. Clearing the Path for First Generation College Students : Qualitative and Intersectional Studies of Educational Mobility. Lexington Books, 2018. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

Smith, Daryl G., and Natalie B. Schonfeld. "The benefits of diversity what the research tells us." About campus 5.5 (2000): 16-23. Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Thayer, Paul B. "Retention of students from first generation and low income backgrounds." (2000).Accessed Nov 9, 20222.

Tym, Carmen, et al. "First-Generation College Students: A Literature Review." TG (Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation) (2004). Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

Undergraduate Admissions. The University of Notre Dame https:/ Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Undergraduate Career Services First Generation. The University of Notre Dame, Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

University Counseling Center First Generation. The University of Notre Dame, Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Watts, Gavin W., et al. “Experiences, Supports, and Strategies of First-Generation College Students.” College Teaching, vol. ahead-of-print, no. ahead-of-print, 2022, pp. 1–11, Accessed October 15, 2022.

Discussion Questions
  1. How does Rodriguez’s personal experience not only inform the argument, but serve as an effective rhetorical device?

  2. Examine Rodriguez’s bibliography. Discuss the sources, their genres, and the way they inform her argument.

  3. Identify Rodriguez’s topic sentences. How does she transition between ideas, while also establishing a line of reasoning?
  4. Notice Rodriguez’s prose. Where does she use imagery and to what effect? Where does she choose to embed, unembed, and paraphrase evidence, and to what effect? How are the length of her sentences varied?