11:44 AM

UHCL celebrates, supports first-gen college students

Monday, Nov. 8 was First-Generation College Student Celebration, marking the anniversary of the day President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Higher Education Act in 1965. This legislation opened the door for many students to become the first in their families to complete a college degree.

University of Houston-Clear Lake is deeply invested in this category of students — about 5,000 members of the student population identify as "first-gen" — and the university celebrated their presence and contributions with events throughout the week.

The Center for First-Generation Student Success reports that 56% of American college students have parents who did not earn a bachelor's degree, and 24% have parents with no post-secondary education at all.

Supporting them, said UH-Clear Lake's Assistant Vice President of Student Engagement Yvonne Hernandez Friedman, is a university priority.

"First generation students are at increased enrollment, and with increasing tuition and college costs, we are finding opportunities to support them and create a community for them," Hernandez Friedman said. "We have been awarded a grant from the Center for First Generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA, to offer assistance to first-gen students and help them find the resources to be successful."

Aja Rodriguez, coordinator of Diversity Programs, said she'd applied for the $500 grant to celebrate First Generation College Student Day.

"The Higher Education Act helps level the playing field for low-income and minority college students," she said. "It provides for additional investments in higher education, with programs targeting first-gen students."

Rodriguez said the funds were used to purchase 25 backpacks with a logo that says First Gen UHCL. "In addition, the backpacks will contain at least one of three reference books about first-generation students, as well as general school supplies and UHCL swag," she said. "We will give away five backpacks a day at each event over the course of the week."

Hernandez Friedman said the backpacks provided a basic resource for students. "But the most important piece is that the backpack itself identifies the student as first gen, so we hope it's a marketing tool that creates connections from peer to peer," she said. "We hope this will get conversations started about it, and others will realize they can also access resources."

She said she'd been a first-gen student herself, and didn't know anything about how to sign up for housing or financial aid — and her parents were unable to help.

"We'd like to create a cohort of students and show them how to navigate the 'red tape' of a university, and find a strategy to support each other and themselves," she said. "If we don't find opportunities for students to talk to each other, we will lose students. We want all populations at UHCL to excel and to have all the tools to be successful."

For more information about resources available to first-generation college students at UHCL, go online.