ASU graduating more first-generation students than ever — here's a look at their journeys and how the university helped
After 10 years, three changes of major and two children, Ashley Pitman graduated from college this week — the first in her family to earn a degree.
Like many first-generation students, her journey took a bit longer, but she knows that she’s secured a future for herself and her family with her bachelor’s of nursing degree from Arizona State University.
“One of the main reasons I did it is because I think each generation of family should improve themselves and strive for higher achievements,” the Navy veteran said. “Even having two kids in the middle of it, I still did it.
“I don’t think my kids will have an excuse to not go to college now.”
Pitman is part of a growing number of first-generation students accepted to and graduating from ASU, part of the university’s mission to expand access.
In the fall 2017 semester, 22,070 students — including first-time freshmen and transfers — were the first in their families to go to college. That's 26 percent of the total enrolled student population, compared with 18 percent a decade ago. And their graduation rate is on the rise.
First-generation students can face unique challenges in navigating the complex world of higher education, but graduation is critically important as Arizona tries to increase the number of degree-holding residents as a way to draw business and boost the state’s economy.
A degree makes an enormous difference. College graduates not only have lower rates of unemployment than non-degree-holders, they also earn an average $17,500 more per yearA recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500. Another recent study from Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime. than high school graduates. Graduates are also more likely to vote and to live a healthier lifestyle.
ASU has committed to removing barriers to higher education and to supporting first-generation students with specialized coaching, which improves the odds that they’ll persist in their studies and graduate.
“We’ve proven that ASU’s vision is possible,” said Kevin Correa, associate director of ASU’s First-Year Success Center.
“We can be committed to both access and excellence at the same time. Those things are not mutually exclusive.”
A blessing and a burden
ASU has supported students through its First-Year Success Center coaching program for several years, but two years ago, the university launched Game Changers, an initiative specifically focused on first-generation freshmen. These students get one-on-one counseling from older peer coaches, many of whom also are first-generation students, along with group events and advice on building practical skills, like time management and how to email a professor.
Game Changers validates the students’ experiences, according to Marisel Herrera, director of ASU’s First-Year Success Center.
“It’s the identity of ‘first.’ What happens when you’re the first in anything? There’s a huge learning curve because you have experiences that those around you have not had,” she said.
Students learn not only practical information specific to ASU, like how to work the meal plan, but they meet a community of people like them.
“We have faculty who were first-generation students come and give talks,” Correa said. “They become role models for the students to relate to and aspire to.”
Beyond practical advice, Game Changers recognizes the unique pressures that first-generation students face, Herrera said.
“You can be this awesome student, academically qualified, living the dream that you and your family have worked so hard for, but you still feel somehow like you don’t belong or you have to prove yourself in ways different from others,” she said.
Even with family support, there can be stresses.
“You have a great deal of expectation from those around you, including your family and your community, to succeed — which is a blessing and a burden,” Herrera said.
“So many times we see students who are doing great but they’re dealing with a level of stress that’s pretty high because this is not just about them and their 18-year-old world. This is: ‘I need to make my family proud.’ ”
Herrera said the Game Changer coaches approach the first-generation students’ experiences as positives, not negatives.
“We talk about them being trailblazers. We congratulate them for being courageous pioneers for their family. We celebrate the experience and ask them to reflect on it,” she said.
Game Changers coaches also push the freshmen to maximize their college careers with leadership positions, undergraduate research, study abroad or entrepreneurship.
“We want them to elevate their vision of themselves,” Herrera said.
The intense one-on-one help is unusual, and colleges from around the country call Herrera to ask about the model.
“For ASU to be the largest university in the nation and to offer such personalized support is unheard of,” she said. “We’ve demonstrated that you can care deeply at scale.”