With 29 percent of SUNY Oswego students counted as the first generation in their families to attend college, a new FirstLEAP Coalition for First-Generation College Student Support team on campus looks to both address these students’ needs and celebrate their accomplishments.

An upcoming highlight is the inaugural "I'm First Day" on Friday, Nov. 8, part of a national celebration of first-generation college students, which will include activities, resources and networking opportunities throughout the day.

Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to visit the event table in the Marano Campus Center concourse from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Nov. 8 for information, raffles, a photobooth and "I'm First" swag.

First-generation alumni Shannon David (class of 2007), assistant director for the Office of Budget and Planning at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine; Harvey Merrick (class of 1974), a portfolio manager in the securities industry for 28 years before retiring; Montos Vakirtzis (class of 1987), IT senior director, enterprise applications and service delivery at Xylem, Inc.; and Echo Cutter (class of 2019), in graduate school studying higher education leadership at the University at Albany, will visit campus to speak with students about their experiences over lunch.

But this day is only part of a yearlong program that realizes first-generation students might not come in with the knowledge of college processes, campus life and academic expectations of those who had at least one parent attend, organizers said.

‘We can do something’

The project started with a webinar on addressing the needs of first-gen students and “afterwards, we said, we can do something,” said coalition member Grace Maxon-Clarke, a counselor for the Educational Opportunity Program, which includes many first-generation attendees.

“It started as a small group, but it grew very quickly,” said Mallory Bower, coordinator of first-year experiential courses and engaged learning, with the group now nearly 25 members including faculty as well staff in areas including advisement, orientation, Penfield Library and EOP.

“Our committee is committed to doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” said Maxon-Clarke, adding the Nov. 8 activities are probably going to be the most visible parts planned. “It’s really about making better experiences.”

Knowing the possibilities and finding role models are key considerations. “We really want the faculty to identify if they are first-generation so the students know who they can go to,” Maxon-Clarke said. 

Ways to put faces onto first-gen students also include freshman Julissa Juarez, a double major in psychology and computer science, doing a #LakerTakeover of the @SUNYOswego Instagram account to introduce the diverse population of these students. A separate @FirstYearsOfOz account tells first-generation student stories on an ongoing basis.

“It’s kind of hard to talk to my parents about what I experienced in college because they don't really know how much work I have to do here,” said Michael-Daniel Vodzogbe, an undeclared freshman whose mother is from the Virgin Islands and whose father is from Ghana. “They think it’s 'get your work done and that’s it,' but it’s kind of hard.”

Dominic Altamura, a sophomore computer science major, noted that his parents understood the importance of college and emphasized his academics for an early age, but the experience itself is unfamiliar to them. Because “my parents don't really understand college, they didn't understand classes and stuff,” he said. “For example, if I had a problem, they don’t know what to do. So it was probably the weirdest thing to figure out myself.”

A lot of first-generation students are also online and non-traditional students as well, so the coalition seeks various ways to make everybody know help is available.

Faculty and staff who are interested in supporting first-generation college students are encouraged to get involved in the coalition or related activities. They can fill out an online form for more information about getting involved.

"I'm First Day” is sponsored by FirstLEAP, the Oswego Alumni Association, criminal justice department, history department and the Office of Orientation.

A national social-media conversation at #CelebrateFirstGen provides a wider view of activities.