Being first can be exciting and scary

On Nov. 8, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act to create programs to help students finance their education, particularly supports necessary for postsecondary access, retention and completion for potential first-generation college graduates.

Almost 60 years later, the University of Washington Bothell continues this work to support and celebrate the educational journeys of first-generation students.

This year, the campus community will participate in National First-Generation College Celebration on Nov. 8 to highlight the experiences of its more than 2,100 first-generation college students — as well as many UW Bothell faculty and staff — who are first in their family to pursue a four-year degree.

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UW Bothell has another reason to celebrate: Earlier this year, it was named a “First-Gen Forward” institution by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ Center for First-Generation Student Success in recognition of its commitment to advancing first-generation efforts.

Charting a path

The event at the Plaza on Nov. 8 from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. is designed to celebrate first-generation students and alleviate the “lonely and intimidating” feeling that students such as Leah Danielle Curtis say they experience.

While many students have parents who can help them navigate college, from researching schools and completing application forms to getting financial aid and walking into a university-level class, students who are first-gen must chart their own path.

“It’s both exciting because I know I’m doing something no one else in my family has ever done,” said Tamika Nastali, a senior studying Society, Ethics & Human Behavior, “and it’s also scary and a bit stressful because I can’t go to my family for help or with questions.

Tamika Nastali, orientation leader

“Initially I had issues of feeling like I didn’t fit in because it felt like much of college was built around the assumption that many of the people coming to college had prior knowledge,” she said. “So when I came in knowing nothing, I felt very lost and confused.”

Finding community

The new First-Gen Forward designation comes in part from programs UW Bothell offers to address issues of possible confusion and to support success. Facilitated by Orientation & Transition Programs, the First-Generation College Student Network is a community that helps navigate academic, financial, career and social aspects of life as a UW Bothell student. The Student Diversity Center, which advocates for students of all identities, also includes first-gen students in its events and programming.

“Our support for first-gen students is woven into nearly everything thing we do,” said Dr. Cinnamon Hillyard, associate vice chancellor and dean for student success. “Daily I hear faculty talk about being purposeful about how they approach a course assignment or a staff member about designing a website with the perspective of a first-generation college student in mind.”

As Nastali and Curtis have discovered, assistance can be found across campus, both formally through established programs and informally in conversations. Many faculty and staff are eager to share their own stories as first-gen graduates, often sporting a button or posting signs in their offices that identifies their status.

Leah Danielle Curtis, peer coach

“Getting connected with my professors and using counseling services have all helped me feel supported,” said Curtis, a junior studying Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies and Psychology.

Nastali added, “Once I realized I could seek out help and support from others — including fellow students — college became a lot less daunting. While I do still get stressed or confused, I no longer feel the sense of hopelessness or imposter syndrome that I felt my first year because I know I’m not the only one feeling like that.”

Helping others

The NASPA designation has further strengthened UW Bothell’s commitment to the work begun by President Johnson back in 1965. In addition to the celebration on Nov. 8 — alongside similar events at the UW campuses in Seattle and in Tacoma — working groups have been convened to develop other ways to enhance the first-gen student experience.

After charting their own paths, Curtis and Nastali now help students like themselves as employees of OTP. Curtis is a peer coach, helping first-year students transition into UW Bothell through one-to-one coaching sessions. Nastali, previously a peer coach, is now an orientation leader and leads the First-Gen Student Network.

“I’m especially proud of myself for becoming the first in my family to go to college, knowing that if anyone else chooses to go, I can be that support system and question-answerer that I wished I had,” said Nastali.

Curtis said, “I am most proud that I live honestly and am not so ashamed of my past that I keep my struggles and successes a secret.

“I keep moving forward and stay focused on where I want to go, not where I have been.”

By Maria Lamarca Anderson

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