Supporting first-generation students

Humanities, Social Sciences

- Katy DeCoste and Anne MacLaurin

Mentorship program co-founders Su Urbanczyk, Catherine Léger and Colette Smart. Photo: Jonah Mahi

“When I was a first-gen student, for a long time, I felt out of place,” reflects Catherine Léger, a professor in French and Francophone Studies at UVic and one of the organizers of a recent conference dedicated to understanding the experiences of first-generation students. “I was passionate about learning, but I suffered from imposter syndrome because I believed that my skills were inferior to everyone else’s. I was quiet, didn’t want to express my opinion in class and was reluctant to consult professors.”

Léger and fellow UVic faculty members Colette Smart (psychology) and Su Urbanczyk (linguistics) come from diverse backgrounds and fields of study—but each began their academic careers as the first members of their families to attend higher education.

They know firsthand that students like themselves often face many barriers. Beyond financial barriers, first-generation students can experience feelings of alienation and imposter syndrome, and often do not have experience navigating the culture of higher education.

As a scholar who has made a research and teaching career out of her passion for learning and language, Léger reflects that having the support and mentorship of professors who believed in her was crucial to building her confidence.

Inspired by mentorship programs for first-generation students at higher education institutions in the United States, the three began a similar project at UVic. With financial support from the President’s Office, First in Class was born—the first program of its kind in British Columbia. There are now 50 faculty mentors and 120 student mentees enrolled in the program.

Aiming to demystify university systems and structures for first-generation students and build a community of support across campus, the program pairs self-identified first-generation student participants with faculty mentors who provide support and direct students to resources. 

“Having faculty mentors can help students make sense of the hidden rules of higher education, and mentors encourage students to pursue their goals,” says Léger. Because participating faculty mentors were themselves first-generation students, they’re able to understand mentees’ experiences firsthand and provide accessible, relevant support.

Just as valuable as the mentor-mentee relationships fostered by First in Class is the opportunity for first-gen students to connect, socialize and build a community. Activities like music bingo, “crafternoons” and even a book club brings students together to share their experiences.

Third-year psychology student Rae Fletcher is a member of the First in Class program. “I’m hoping to build a deeper connection and understanding of where I come from, since many others have experienced a similar path,” she says.

To broaden the conversation about supporting first-generation students in Canada, the team planned a free, public conference, bringing together students and faculty from the mentorship program with scholars and professionals. The conference featured presentations on topics like the impact of class and social mobility, how first-generation students have found success, and how working together can support students.

“The first-gen conference was our first large event aimed at bringing undergraduate and graduate students and faculty from the mentorship program together with other scholars and professionals,” says Smart. “There were well attended presentations on a variety of topics: class and mobility, how first-generation students have found success in academia, and how working together can support first generation students. Really, it was an opportunity to increase visibility and build a sense of community in what can otherwise feel like an isolating experience, one of not ‘fitting in’ on campus.”

Unlike many academic conferences, whose structures and fees are in many ways emblematic of the barriers to higher education, this gathering was free and open to the public. Alongside presentations from experts, the event featured a session to help students with goal-setting and time management and a question-and-answer session with faculty and support staff.

As a volunteer at the conference, Fletcher found community, support and a chance to learn from her peers, researchers, professionals, and those who have been where she is now.

“It was great to learn what other professors and professionals are researching about supporting first-generation students, and it’s exciting to connect blue-collar students to academics,” she shares. “We focused on opening the table of conversation to everyone, so we could expand our perspectives.”

Learn more about First in Class



In this story

Keywords: student life, education

People: Catherine Léger, Colette Smart, Su Urbanczyk

Publication: The Ring

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