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Observer Editorial: Keep the family affair fair

| Friday, November 8, 2019

Notre Dame sometimes feels like a family affair. We all know a fifth-generation Domer whose first words were “Go Irish!” The University’s mission to maintain a certain number of legacy students solidifies this trend; five years ago, Notre Dame committed to reserving a certain number of spots in each class for children of alumni.

We must remember, however, the Notre Dame family extends far beyond legacies. This week, our campus celebrates a group of students whose experiences often differ from the legacy community’s. Known as “first-generation students,” these are students who are the first in their families to attend college. The inaugural First Generation and Low Income Student Week affords us an opportunity to think about the challenges these students face, from the admissions process to collegiate life to post-graduation, and celebrate their successes.

To learn about the first-generation experience on campus, The Observer spoke with five first-generation students from the tri-campus community: Notre Dame senior Charlie Ortega Guifarro, Notre Dame junior Lena Do, a Saint Mary’s senior who asked to be identified as “GC,” Holy Cross sophomore Cody Rieckhoff and a 2019 Notre Dame alumnus, Rathin Kacham. (Editor’s Note: Ortega is a photographer for The Observer.)

Each student interviewed commended their respective institution’s efforts to support first-generation students, but also made clear that much work remains to ensure first-generation students don’t fall through the cracks — especially at the beginning of their college careers.

Difficulties begin during the admissions process. The University does not go far enough to get in touch with prospective first-generation students during their college search, the Notre Dame respondents asserted. If Notre Dame wishes to be a source of support, the University cannot take such a passive role in the application process. By definition, first-generation students come from households where the parents have no personal experience with the college experience. If first-generations students want help, they typically must rely on outside sources, such as high school guidance counselors — who are often stretched thin working with other students — or external programs like QuestBridge.

Once they’ve arrived on campus, first-generation students often struggle to adjust to college life. Academics, for instance, can be difficult because they don’t know what to expect, the students told The Observer. Culture shock is another serious problem. Several students said they were not accustomed to the frequent displays of wealth in the community. “It isn’t just the money, it’s the culture of wealth,” Kacham said. “I felt like I was being thrown into a space that I didn’t belong in because I didn’t have the wealth to afford it.”

The students from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s said the communities lack a robust support system for first-generation students. They reported a sense of loneliness from the fact that no one seemed to understand their situation. They were not granted a way to contact other first-generation students who might be experiencing the same sentiments — which greatly impacted their overall experiences.

The three schools have undertaken a few commendable measures to help first-generation students adjust. Holy Cross makes a point of connecting first-generation students with each other, as well as with professors from a similar background. Saint Mary’s Belles Connect strives to connect first-generation and minority students before arriving on campus. Notre Dame respondents praised the 3-year-old Office of Student Enrichment — the campus group responsible for helping under-resourced students enjoy their Notre Dame experience — for its deep level of care.

Nevertheless, there is still progress to be made. Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, especially, must do more to connect first-generation students and make sure they feel supported as they find their footing. A support network is always important, but especially so for these students as they start their college journeys.

We also challenge students who are not first generation to listen respectfully and attentively to their first-generation friends. Some of the students interviewed mentioned the prevalence of stereotyping on campus. “We’re not necessarily poor,” Ortega Guifarro said. “We’re not stupid. We made it to Notre Dame. We are pretty nervous about being here, but we want to succeed obviously. And it would help if y’all just gave us a little time — time to adjust.”

Each student’s journey to South Bend is different. Not everyone was groomed for a Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s or Holy Cross education since the cradle. We should embrace the diversity of experiences present at our schools as one of our community’s strengths.

Families hold each other up. If our schools are truly the families we say they are, we cannot let any of our fellow students fall through the cracks. No one should have to face the challenges of college life alone — least of all the first-generation pioneers taking a step into the unknown.

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