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Letter to the Editor | First-generation college students face unique challenges, faculty shouldn’t hamper our learning

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Letter to the editor

This letter was written by Abdiel Vazquez, a Mexican American first-generation college graduate. He is pursuing his master's in public administration at Penn State.

First-generation college students face many unique challenges. We often feel enormous pressure to succeed, guilt because of the opportunities we have been afforded that our parents were not, and pride as we sacrifice and work to build a better life for ourselves and our families.

Aside from the complex emotional rollercoaster of being a first-generation college student, we also face institutional hurdles that most traditional students do not.

We often struggle to navigate what is described as the “hidden curriculum” of college, which includes figuring out housing, financial aid, networking, getting help from professors and counselors, and getting involved in extracurricular activities. We don’t have parents who have gone through this complex system before, and sometimes our parents don’t even speak the same language as our administrators and professors. As a result, we have to go above and beyond — by ourselves — to get the information we need to succeed.

This lack of institutional knowledge along with the additional burdens of being a first-generation student has real world consequences that can prevent us from taking full advantage of our time in college — or even finishing our chosen degree program at all.

In fact, only 27% of first-generation college students graduate within four years, according to a report by the Center for First-generation Student Success.

This high dropout rate is often the result of a failure by our educational institutions to adapt to the varying needs of “nontraditional” students. Of the 4.7 million students who entered college in 2009, only 24% were “full-time students who were attending college for the first time.” Interestingly, there are far more of the “nontraditional” students than what many imagine is typical for college students. 

Professors and universities should recognize the unique struggles that first-generation and other nontraditional students face and understand we often feel more comfortable turning to outside resources to succeed. This might mean watching additional lectures on iTunes U, making flashcards to study on Chegg and Quizlet, or getting writing help from Grammarly.

Amid the pandemic as schools suddenly moved to virtual classes, online resources have been the saving grace for millions of students like me. Unfortunately, I have heard professors discouraging online resources like Chegg, because it is only viewed as a tool for cheating.

Many professors don’t seem to understand how most students use these tools to help them learn. If faculty and administrators overreact and choose to target students who use these types of online resources and make students feel like it is illegal even to have a Chegg account, they put the success of nontraditional students like me at risk. My generation grew up with the internet, and our ability to access and learn information effectively online will ensure that we are the leaders of tomorrow. To hamper our ability to do so is to discourage us from learning, growing, and succeeding.

 I am grateful that Penn State acknowledges the unique difficulties some students face. Last year they hosted a National First-Generation College Celebration, but we need more than acknowledgement. We need support.

Unnecessarily cracking down and policing students who use online educational resources is detrimental to the education of students. Given all the added burdens first-generation students face to earn our degrees, I hope faculty will not add additional barriers.

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