How first-generation college students succeed

by Matt Davis

When students enter their freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they usually feel prepared to handle a rigorous academic course load and feel confident they will earn a college degree.

Matt Hard News Photo

The five-year graduation rate of first-generation students is improving. (UW Photo Library)

However, many of these students have other family members who have already graduated from a four-year college or university.

“When I first got to college, I was completely overwhelmed by everything,” said Cas Relucio, who is a first-generation college student. “ I was struggling academically and I didn’t know what resources to use that would help my academic career.”

According to Academic Planning and Institutional Research from the Office of the Provost at UW-Madison, about 17 percent of students from the freshman class of 2014 were first-generation college students, meaning they are the first person in each of their immediate families to graduate from a four-year college or university.

The entire freshman class of 2010 had a graduation rate of 82.2 percent after five years (the most recent data available) compared to 80 percent in 2005. The total number of first-generation students from 2010 who graduated in five years was 75.9 percent compared to 72 percent in 2005.

This means the graduation rate of first-generation students is improving faster than the graduation rate of the rest of the students on campus.

Many first-generation college students, including Relucio, turn to the Center for Educational Opportunity, which is a university-run organization.  CeO promotes equal opportunity in higher education not only for first-generation college students, but also for low-income students and students with disabilities.

“CeO improved my grades and got my college career moving in the right direction,” said Relucio. After joining, she received academic help in her courses, which greatly improved her grades.

“We provide hands-on academic advising to help give students more in-depth advising, as well as a transition program that provides a community that makes students feel comfortable at UW-Madison,” said Eric Williams, assistant vice provost for student diversity and academic excellence and interim director of CeO.  “Our students and staff at CeO are here to help students with academic, emotional and social support.”

Specific services provided by CeO include academic, career and internship advising, academic tutors, peer mentors, academic support in math and writing, study skills, specialized courses and cultural and social events. The organization also serves as a liaison for financial aid, housing and other university services.

Students must apply to be members of CeO by writing an essay about their background and including application materials in addition to their university application.

As a first-generation college student, Relucio felt extra pressure to succeed academically when she began her freshman year. CeO showed Relucio that there were other students in a similar situation.

“I found out I wasn’t the only one and that we all have similar obstacles we are trying to overcome,” said Relucio.  “I had to work while in school here to support myself and I didn’t have my family near me to provide motivation. CeO helped me overcome problems like this by seeing other people go through the same thing I’m going through.”

However, what Relucio enjoys most about CeO is that she feels comfortable on campus, which is something she did not encounter before joining.

“My favorite part about CeO is that I can be myself when I am around these people,” said Relucio. “I’m also on the student advisory board in CeO which helps give me and many others misrepresented students a bigger voice on campus.”

According to Williams, there are approximately 370 students in CeO, who come from many ethnic, social and academic backgrounds and range from freshman to seniors.

CeO is not the only program that supports first-generation college students: First Wave, Pre–College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) and the Posse Program also help first-generation students succeed.

“Our goal is that we want to make sure all first-generation college students graduate, and have the same great experience at UW-Madison like the rest of the students on campus,” said Williams.



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