First-generation students receive helping hand

If you’re the first in your family to go to university or college, there are benefits to identifying yourself as a first-generation student and of taking advantage of support services designed especially for you.

While the transition to post-secondary education is seamless for some first-generation students, many face greater challenges making the transition than those students whose parents completed higher education, says Jeremy Sandor, manager of student development at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

For starters, first-gens are often less aware of the full scope of services and supports available to them, such as academic support and ways to get involved. “They don’t know what they don’t know,” he says. “Oftentimes, they don’t know the questions they should be asking in order to feel adequately supported.”


Being the first in the family to attend university is often a huge source of pride for entire families but can lead to high expectations. Many first-generation students feel like no one understands the time commitment it requires to be academically successful while also maintaining personal health and personal relationships, Sandor adds.

Some studies indicate first-generation students represent up to one-third of all students at some Canadian universities. Many universities and also colleges are addressing the unique needs of first-gen students. University of Toronto, for example, offers a First in the Family peer mentor program.

Through its First Year Experience Office, McMaster offers a program designed to bridge the gap between first-gens and their peers. It offers support from upper-year peer mentors who are also first-generation students and also offer information about services and resources available to them on campus.

“We suggest to first-generation students the workshops we think they should attend over the course of the year … and in what order,” says Sandor. “In late fall and early winter, we focus more on personal development, like leadership development and volunteering opportunities. By the end of the academic year we start to point students towards career resources, such as how write a resumé and cover letters and how to find job, as well as career development support.”


First-generation student support was invaluable to Chelsea Bodoe, who recently graduated from McMaster’s honours life sciences program. “I grew up with the mentality that after high school, going to university was the natural path to take.” She knew from a young age she wanted to pursue a career in health care and her parents have been “very supportive” of her plans to pursue professional school with hopes of getting into medical school.

“As a first-generation student, I found the challenge begins right at the start with the application process to university. I ended up doing everything by myself — figuring out what (the Ontario Student Assistance Program) was and how to apply for it as well as how to apply to university. It’s not because I didn’t have the support of my parents but because we had the same level of knowledge.”

Neither of Bodoe’s parents pursued post-secondary education in Canada after emigrating from Trinidad. “Many students think being first-generation as an obstacle and I did too when I first came to university. Now I don’t think of it as an obstacle but as an interesting and unique opportunity to explore and exploit resources,” she says. “You even know a little more than students who aren’t first generation because you have a different perspective.”

Following in parents’ footsteps

According to a 2011 Statistics Canada study, “Intergenerational Education Mobility: University Completion in Relation to Parents’ Education Level,” young adults with at least one parent who completed a university degree are much more likely to graduate from university. There’s a similar association for college or trade school education: children whose parents pursued such studies are more likely to do so themselves.

Retrieved from the Toronto Sun, written by Linda White.

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