First-generation college students are in many ways the core of community colleges, which were originally designed to provide equal access to higher education. Serving this group of students requires respect for and attention to the unique challenges they face.

Generally, first-generation students are defined as students who come from families without a college-going tradition, who are the first in their families to pursue a higher education degree. While some have families who support their plans for higher education, many others face pressure to enter or remain in the workforce to help support the family.

Data from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) helps paint a picture of who these students are: About 36 percent of first-generation students are minorities. Other common characteristics that pose distinct challenges, according to the AACC report, is that most first-generation students are not of the traditional college age, have been out of school for some time and are just returning. Also, the majority are working full- or part-time while attending college classes. Not surprisingly, many first-generation students are taking a smaller load of courses, probably in an effort to balance work, family responsibilities and school.

In addition, with no one in their family having experienced college life, these students often feel left alone to navigate the often complex processes of looking for colleges, applying, submitting for scholarships and financial aid and all the other steps involved with becoming a student of higher education.

Community colleges have filled an important niche in reaching out to these students and serving them through their academic journey, however it often takes encouragement and support from their broader community to get them to take those first steps. If you happen to know a friend, neighbor, employee or relative who is the first in their family to consider going to college, what can you do to guide them on that journey?

The first important step to assisting a first-generation college student is to encourage them to talk about their goals with a high school guidance counselor, if still in school, or to a college admissions representative or counselor. For high school students, reach out early by talking to them about advanced placement and honors courses that might help to prepare them for college-level work. Also, encourage them to look into taking the SAT or ACT before they begin their application process. You can help mentor any aspiring first-generation student by talking to them about which career paths their aptitudes or goals might point to, and find ways to involve their immediate family members in understanding and supporting the process. Perhaps most importantly, encourage these students to visit colleges, take advantage of college fairs and information nights. These steps will help them familiarize themselves with the many different options in higher education, such as the differences between public and private institutions, community colleges and four-year colleges.

At Waubonsee Community College, first-generation students are eligible to receive a variety of services from programs like our TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) program. Designed to be a one-stop shop for qualified students, Waubonsee’s TRIO (SSS) program serves about 200 students each academic year. TRIO (SSS) staff offer services helping students with financial aid, college visits, note taking, career exploration, and tutoring. Current TRIO SSS students at Waubonsee range in age from 17 to 58.

Thanks to a recently-awarded $2.6 million federal Title V grant, Waubonsee has launched its new Connect4Success program which will provide free success coaching services to 800-1000 new high-need students at Waubonsee. You can learn more about this exciting program by calling Lisa Richardson, Student Success Manager at (630) 466-4610.

Community colleges can be proud that our open-access institutions serve such a diverse student population, just as first-generation students should be proud of their courage to take the first steps to securing an advanced degree and a more secure future for themselves and their families. We can each make a difference in building strong communities as we support those around us to achieve their full potential and blaze new trails.