For Steven Craney, a Trinity College senior and the first in his family to attend college, parents weekend is one of those times when the divide between him and those with college-educated parents is never more apparent.
“I live around here, but even when my parents came, they just felt super-isolated because of the way the other parents act,” said Craney, who comes from Franklin. “You just feel out of place.”
Chris Rowe, another first-generation Trinity college student and a sophomore from Jamaica chimed in: “Everyone comes in their big SUVs and with their dogs. They all have dogs.”
Helping first-year students, who like Rowe and Craney are the first in their families to go to college, adjust and succeed is part of a new effort at Trinity.
The program, which includes Rowe and Craney as mentors, starts with pre-orientation for first-year students and will carry through the four years, considering issues that most students probably experience to some degree, but can be particularly difficult for students with no family members who went to college.
This weekend, when the Hartford campus is inundated with families visiting, many parents of first generation students will be unable to get time off from work or to afford a visit to campus, As part of its on-going effort to work closely with first-year students, Trinity has planned an off-campus picnic for those without family visiting.
“It goes to the question of belonging,” said Jennifer Baszile, Trinity’s dean of student success and career development. “Studies show that when students lack a sense of belonging, it can undermine their sense of connection and engagement with the college community and can lead to challenges with retention.”
“Rather than just casting these students into the deep water of college and expecting them to just figure it out, we are equipping them with tools based on research,” said Baszile. “So they don’t start to ask themselves the quote unquote wrong questions. Do I belong here? Did they make a mistake when they selected me?”
Angel Perez, vice president for enrollment and student success, has changed Trinity’s admissions policies – dropping the requirement of SAT scores and looking at candidates’ personal characteristics such as resilience – to encourage students who might not have thought they could get into Trinity to consider it.
His efforts are reflected in the increased percentage of first generation freshmen on campus this fall, accounting for 15 percent of the class compared to 10 percent two years ago.
“As our population changes, we need to make sure we are serving those students well,” said Perez, who was a first generation college student from the South Bronx.. “I fundamentally believe that college is a skill to be learned. When no one in the family went to school, they don’t know what skills are needed, what questions to ask.”
Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity said “providing support for first generation students will help us reach one of our most important goals: to increase access and affordability. It is a goal at the heart of Trinity’s ability to remain relevant in the 21st century and to contribute to the public good.”
Jennifer Chavez, a junior from New York, said she didn’t even ask her folks to come to parents weekend.
“This is the first year they were even able to buy a car … I think if I asked, they would not understand the concept. Since they didn’t go to college, they wouldn’t understand why – not that they don’t support me.”
Chavez, who serves as a mentor in the program, said that first generation students have a problem telling their parents anything except all is going well “because of the role they inherently have, being the first.’
“Being the one the whole family cheers on, you can’t really tell them, ‘I’m really struggling right now and I don’t look like everyone. Everyone talks different and everyone knows each other and has been to a place called Nantucket. You can’t really tell them those things because they worry and that’s almost worse.”
Baszile urged the students not to get caught up in “externalities,” like who is wearing expensive brand clothes.
“If you’re always focused on what you don’t have, if you’re always focused on how easy someone else seems to have it, you’re not going to leave space for self-awareness,” Baszile said.
She said students have to learn the skills of self-awareness and self-regulation so that if they are sitting in the dining hall and panicking, “rather than going into the self-talk of ‘oh my God, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t belong here. I don’t have any friends, this is terrible’ — right?”
Instead of “telling yourself a story,” Baszile urged them to “press pause” and reset with a run or a call home or whatever might wind them down.
It was at a lunch for first generation students that first-year student Anne Valbrune’s concern surfaced.
Baszile asked students where they were with the ups and downs in the adjustment to college when Valbrune said she was at a low point because of her struggle in physics.
A free tutor is available through Trinity, Baszile told her, explaining who she should email to get a tutor.
Valbrune later said that at her charter high school in Cambridge, Mass., she was always the one who students consulted when they needed help.
Baszile noted that it can be difficult for students, who were at the top of their classes and associated the need for extra help with low-perfromance, to ask for help. In college, she emphasized, it’s the reverse. It’s the best students who go to their professors’ office hours.
“Here’s the the biggest headline I want to give you: Don’t wait for a crisis to hit to reach out for help, if you don’t feel that you have the momentum that you want,” Baszile said. “It doesn’t have to be that you get a terrible grade or that something terrible has happened in order to get assistance and support.”
Without the first-year program, Valbrune said, she might have gotten mired in fears that she couldn’t do the work. Instead, she’s seeking out a tutor and is determined to improve.
“I’m realizing that college is just hard. It’s just hard. It gets better over time,” Anne said. “I’m just waiting for the better part to happen.”