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First-generation students celebrated for their successes

Lilli Di Virgilio, left, and Udis Calderon are first-generation students. According to UNG’s Department of Enrollment Management, 23 percent of undergraduates and graduate students at UNG are first-generation students. That means two out of every 10 students are first-generation.

For University of North Georgia (UNG) sophomore Alex Rodgers, going to college was never really a question.

"For as long as I can remember, I knew I would go to college," said the 19-year-old from Cumming, Georgia.

Rodgers, who is majoring in communication with a concentration in journalism, is the first in his family to attend college. And he is not alone.

According to UNG’s Department of Enrollment Management, 23 percent of undergraduates and graduate students at UNG are first-generation students. That means two out of every 10 students are first-generation. Nationally, 33 percent of currently enrolled undergraduate college students are first-generation, which is defined as a student whose parents or guardians did not attend college.

UNG will spotlight those students Nov. 8 with the national First-Generation College Student Celebration.

"We want to highlight our first-generation students for their successes and show them that UNG supports them and wants to help them reach their academic and personal goals," said Michelle Eaton, director of Enrollment Management for Student Success at UNG.

To show support for first-generation students, the UNG community is encouraged to:

  • Wear a button or sticker saying "I was a first-generation student" or "I support first-generation students."
  • Share stories about being a first-generation student.
  • Share first-generation stories or show support on social media using #CelebrateFirstGen nationally and #UNGfirstgen locally.

First-generation students also may compete for UNG's inaugural first-generation $500 scholarship. To apply, students must complete an application and explain in 500 words or fewer how UNG or higher education has impacted their lives. Non-first-generation students may also submit a 500-word essay about how they have assisted first-generation students.

First-generation student Udis Calderon plans to apply for the scholarship. He has several examples of how UNG has impacted his life positively. The junior majoring in communication with a concentration in public relations explained he was the typical "comes to class and then goes home" student as a freshman.

"No one told me how to get involved," Calderon said.

That changed his sophomore year. The Gainesville, Georgia, resident became an orientation leader and got involved in the Nighthawks Entertainment board and Latino Student Association.

"I connected with people who had the same mindset and goal as me," Calderon said. "Then one of the people told me about the Writing Center and the Math Lab, which offers tutoring."

Calderon took advantage of those resources, especially the Math Lab. It made an immediate impact.

"My grades started getting better," he said.

Being unfamiliar with the web of college policies, expectations, campus resources or the terminology such as "credit hour," "registrar" and "FASFA" is a common challenge first-generation students face, Eaton said.

"I had one student who didn't know you could check out a laptop at the library," she said.

Lilli Di Virgilio said being a first-generation student comes with other pressures.

"It was like being out in the deep sea alone with no experienced guidance in this case," she said.

UNG is trying to help students face those challenges and succeed through programs including:

  • Upward Bound, a federally funded grant designed to help promising low-income, first-generation high school students prepare for and be successful in college.
  • McNair Scholars, a program designed to identify and prepare sophomores, juniors and seniors for post-graduate studies; participants are either first-generation college students with financial need or members of a group traditionally underrepresented in graduate education.

Di Virgilio applauds UNG's efforts to recognize first-generation students.

"I think that it is a great idea, and something new that more schools should do," she said. "Hopefully it will reach others who aren't sure where to start or even give them a reason to start college."

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