By Sean Smith, Editor, Boston College Chronicle
For first-generation college students, arriving on a college campus represents a triumph over considerable odds. But it’s also only a beginning: the rest of the way isn’t necessarily any easier.
That’s why, according to student affairs professionals, “first-gens” fare best when they have resources, including caring, committed campus staff to help them face educational, social, and economic challenges markedly different from those of their fellow undergraduates.
At Boston College’s Learning to Learn office — the institutional voice for first generation, low income, and underrepresented students founded in 1979 — the newest such support is “BC F1RST,” launched in 2020 as one of eight Living and Learning Communities (LLCs) administered by BC’s Office of Residential Life.
LLCs such as “Multicultural Learning Experience,” “Sustainability,” and the “Shaw Leadership Program” offer the opportunity for students with shared interests or backgrounds to live alongside and regularly interact with one another. Fifteen first-year students comprised the inaugural BC F1RST LLC cohort, which is housed on BC’s Newton Campus.
The BC F1RST LLC, an extension of BC’s similarly named college transition program, is a collaboration between the Learning to Learn office and Residential Life to offer initiatives, activities, and services—from guided group discussions on college life and other topics, to informal chats — that enable first-gens to connect with one another. BC F1RST LLC also connects them with BC faculty and staff, and helps to facilitate the development of support networks across campus and beyond—including first-gen alumni—who will help them succeed at BC.
One BC F1RST LLC student is sophomore Alexandra Kabo, a biology major from Silver Spring, MD, who plans to become a physician. She credits her mother, a Cameroon native who emigrated to the U.S. before Kabo was born, as a source of inspiration and persistence. “America is viewed as a land of opportunity; that was always, and still is, my mother’s belief,” said Kabo. “She taught me that education, and wanting to learn, is key—even if you’re not good at it, if you’re trying and you have the will, that’s all that matters. The emphasis on education has always been my foundation since I was a little girl, and I’ve placed high expectations on myself.”
Kabo, who attended Catholic school in her youth, felt that Boston College was the ideal place to fulfill those expectations. The BC F1RST College Transition Program gave her a good start, introducing her to other first-gens—some of whom are now also part of the LLC—with whom she can share triumphs, setbacks, and useful details about college life.
“Coming from a similar background, our mindset is ‘We’re all in this together,’” she explained. “You find out a little information and you share it with everyone else, even if it’s something like how you address a faculty member. If you’re used to calling your teacher ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.,’ you don’t necessarily know you’re supposed to say ‘Professor’ or ‘Doctor.’ I look forward to our small group meetings because we get to know each other, and be closer to one another.”
For all their commonalities, first-generation students have their own individual stories, and their own dreams and visions for the future. The BC F1RST LLC is part of BC’s efforts to ensure first-gens like Kabo experience the University in a way that suits their particular interests, personalities, and needs. “Working with ResLife to create a BC F1RST LLC just made so much sense,” said Learning to Learn director Rossanna Contreras-Godfrey. “It’s helped to expand our office’s resources, and those of BC, to first-gen students in a new and important way. College life can be difficult for anyone, and first-gens can have challenges that go beyond financial. Yet these students come with a lot to offer—not just to BC, but the world beyond.”
An average of about 260 first-generation undergraduates have enrolled at BC during the past five years. In the last decade, the percentage of first-gen students in the first-year class has ranged from 9 to 11 percent. The University’s commitment to recruiting and retaining first-gens is reflected in its multitude of programs and resources, which, in addition to BC F1RST and Learning to Learn, include the Options Through Education Transitional Program, which nurtures a select group of diverse students’ academic, social, cultural, and spiritual development while at BC; the Montserrat Coalition, a campus partner program that assists students at the highest level of financial need to actively participate in and experience a Jesuit education; and the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, which supports the undergraduate community with a particular focus on students of African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American descent.
That commitment was strengthened in 2020 by the University’s establishment—through a partnership with nearby Pine Manor College—of the Pine Manor Institute for Student Success, which focuses on recruiting and graduating more underrepresented and first-generation students. Last year, BC was also designated as a First-gen Forward Institution by the Center for First-Generation Student Success; received a five-year, $1.7-million federal TRIO Student Support Services grant to assist low-income, first-generation students, and students with disabilities; and entered into a partnership with QuestBridge, a program that helps high-achieving, low-income students gain admission and scholarships to the country’s top-ranked colleges.
The BC F1RST College Transition Program addresses these and other issues and concerns, and the LLC helps reinforce the message of support. Students are assigned a dedicated advisor at Learning to Learn and receive internship and career advice. First-year BC F1RST members take an Applications of Learning Theory class, covering areas like study skills, academic planning, and navigating the University, as well as participate in the BC Successful Start financial literacy program.
Administrators and staff say programs like BC F1RST recognize that first-gens often had to be their own counselors and advocates even as they strived for academic excellence. Now, having achieved their dream of college, they should be able to focus on being students.