Graduating from college is always a major accomplishment, but for first generation students it’s not just a personal achievement but a family milestone. These students are as diverse a group as any, but they often share a common work ethic and penchant for resilience exhibited by a determination to succeed, sometimes against all odds. Many go on to become role models in their families and communities, inspiring younger generations to blaze new paths of their own.
First Gens, We Get the Job Done” was the message artfully scrawled atop University of Miami alumna Annette Rizo’s “Hamilton”-inspired graduation cap as she crossed the stage at her spring 2021 commencement ceremony. Like roughly one-fifth of UM’s student body, she was among the first members of her family to graduate from college.
According to Bobby Gallagher, a graduate assistant for UM’s first-generation support program Empower Me First, the term “first generation” applies to any student whose parents have not completed a bachelor’s degree program or higher.
As in any community, first-gens are not a homogenous group. They all bring unique experiences, backgrounds, struggles and strengths to the table. Still, many seem to share a sense of pride in belonging to this group. Others have reported facing challenges that some other students may not consider.
Rizo, who was born and raised in Miami, is not just a first-generation ‘Cane, but a first-generation American. When the Nicaraguan Revolution broke out in the late ‘70s and ’80s, she said, both sides of her family left their homes for the United States. Finances were tight while growing up in South Florida, but her family pushed education as a way out. From the time she started high school, Rizo worked toward her goal of attending college and, ultimately, law school.
“My sister sent me a memory from Snapchat,” said Rizo, who transferred from Miami-Dade College, “And it’s when I got my acceptance letter. I see myself crying and screaming like ‘I got in, I got in, I’m going to UM!’”
While Rizo said she had the time of her life at The U, she also felt immense pressure as a trailblazer in her family. “When I graduated,” she said, “the first thing that popped into my head was ‘I did it.’ And I mostly did it for my grandma. She left two or three businesses in Nicaragua just to make sure the family could get to the United States.”
Rizo now works for the State Attorney’s office in Miami and says her little cousins are already looking up to her as an example of what’s possible.
This aspect of Rizo’s experience is shared by many first-generation students who, after starting or graduating college with comparatively little help, find themselves as a resource and mentor for other members of their families and communities.
“It’s something interesting when you have older siblings who have done it,” said senior criminology major Paul Douillon, whose sisters attended college before him. “But it still doesn’t take away all of the challenges that you have as a first-generation student.”
Kysha Harriell, executive director of the Office of Academic Enhancement and a former first-generation student herself, said these challenges can be as vital as having to fill out forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) alone to as seemingly informal as not knowing how to dress for class. Imposter syndrome, Douillon said, can be a problem for many.
“Sometimes I didn’t go for things because I didn’t feel like I was qualified,” said junior Cassandra Michel, a double major in psychology and community and applied psychological studies. “I think I realized it was because I never saw people in my family do these things. Even first- gen kids around me were timid in doing certain things.”
Skills that could be considered “cultural capital,” like knowing how to write resumes and send professional emails, she said, are often not taught at home to first- generation students.
“Most people can go to somebody else and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know how to make my resume, can you help me out?’” she said. “But when you’re first gen, you’re the person making your resume.”
While the parents of first-generation students may not have their own degrees, many are supportive of their children even if they don’t understand everything about college. Douillon, who commutes to campus from Homestead each day, said his mother makes him breakfast most mornings so he doesn’t have to eat out.
For the parents of senior psychology and communications double major Becca Swan, offering support means sacrificing some of their own financial stability. Though Swan said she always knew she wanted to go to college—and that her parents were supportive of the aspiration—when she first began applying to schools, they questioned how they would pay for it.
Swan taught them about the FAFSA and financial aid, and said she received enough scholarship money to attend UM with their help. At school, she said she has experienced opportunities she would not have otherwise thought possible, like traveling overseas to study abroad. She said her parents have had to manage money carefully, down to the timing of grocery trips, to make it work.
However, not all students have had this backing. Christopher Salomon, who graduated last spring, paid his way at UM by working as a manager at the Hilton Bentley Miami in South Beach. Balancing a full course load with a full-time job, he said, took a toll on his mental health. Finding a community of friends on campus to support him through this time was essential.
Since he started college in his mid-20s, Salomon said some peers initially couldn’t relate to him as an older student. However, they later turned to him as a mentor and resource who could offer valuable advice on matters like interview prep.
Formerly homeless for almost a year, a driving force behind Solomon’s work ethic was his unwillingness to return to the situation from which he came. “I had to scratch to survive, to take my pennies and do whatever I could to make sure that I didn’t go through that struggle again,” he said.
While many students may not share this particular experience with Solomon, according to Harriell, socioeconomic factors, as well as factors like race, ethnicity and identity, can often present additional hurdles for first-generation students. “There’s so much intersection,” she said, “between being first-gen and [those other things].”
For many students whose families didn’t attend college, especially those from low-income communities, filling out an application itself is a huge step.
Maya Suggs, who worked at Shea High School in Rhode Island last year as an employee of AmeriCorps’ College Advising Corps, said looking past the pandemic to see a future where a college education is beneficial was tough for her students. More than 70% of whom would be first-generation.
As Suggs tried to advise students on colleges and careers, she said, many were dealing with issues like living out of cars, working to support parents or raising children of their own. These situations, she said, play out in inner cities and low-income communities across the United States and were exacerbated by COVID-19, as family members lost jobs and lives.
For undocumented students, she said, the stakes are even higher; one mistake filling out paperwork could lead to a child and their family being investigated or deported.
Because of matters like these, Douillon said, first-gens are “some of the most resilient and innovative students you will ever meet.”
“I think a reason we’re so resilient and powerful and strong,” he said, “is because we know that we’re changing the trajectory of our entire families.”
To first-generation students, and to all members of the UM community, the students all voiced a common message: You’re not alone. “You belong,” said Michel, “and there are resources here for you.”
words_kylea henseler. photo_nailah anderson. design_lindsay jayne.