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Student Life

First-Gen Students Find a Home at AU

Faculty, staff, and students celebrate and share.

By Patty Housman

First Gen panelists on talking stage

First generation voices matter at American University.

That was the message AU Literature Professorial Lecturer Melissa Scholes Young delivered to an audience of students, faculty, and staff at the Katzen Arts Center, in an event hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences.

The term “First-Generation” in this context refers to people who are the first in their family to attend college. At AU, more than 11 percent of current students identify themselves as first-generation, and their numbers are growing—doubling since 2010. Many face language, cultural, financial, and other potential barriers to completing their college educations and succeeding in life—a situation that AU, like many universities, is trying hard to change.

Scholes Young, a former first-generation student herself, told the audience that first-gen students are a real asset on campus. “We know how to be flexible. We know how to bounce back. We know how to keep knocking on doors until someone opens one,” she said. “We know how to take risks and dream really big.”

A New World
When Scholes Young arrived at American University more than 20 years ago, she didn’t really even know that she was a first-generation student. Like many students, she couldn’t define the term. She didn’t know that she had to buy her own books, and she had never heard of a registrar or a bursar. She was dropped off at college two days earlier than her peers. 

“I had to learn the hard way how to do college,” she said.

But Scholes Young, whose family instilled in her a strong work ethic and drive to succeed, would not only graduate from college, but also earn a master’s degree in education and an MFA in creative writing. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Poets and Writers, Ploughshares, and many other literary journals. Her upcoming novel, Flood, will be published by Hachette, and her latest article, "Navigating Campus Together," focuses on first-generation students and was recently published in The Atlantic.

What First-Gen Students Need
Scholes Young discussed the challenges of being a first-generation student. First-gens can feel overly grateful. They might hesitate to ask for help. They might not take advantage of office hours and other student resources. They might try to do everything by themselves or experience imposter syndrome. And sometimes they might simply not know how things work, from how to annotate an article or find work-study opportunities on campus.

Scholes Young also pointed out what first-gen students need—and what universities can do to help them succeed. “We need to find out who our [first-gen] students are and think about them as whole students, from matriculation to graduation,” she said. “We need to value what the first-gen students bring to our campus. And we need to listen to who they are, rather than just tell them where they can go for help.”

Student First-Gens Weigh In
After Scholes Young spoke, she sat down on stage with a first-gen student panel that included Guillermo Creamer (SIS ’16), Sarah McKinley (CAS ’18), Heaven Lee Sensky, (SPA’18), and Camille Clark, coordinator of multicultural and first-generation college outreach at AU’s Center for Diversity & Inclusion. 

The panel was moderated by Celine-Marie Pascale, associate dean for undergraduate studies, once a first-gen student herself. The panel started with the game “two truths and a lie,” which gave them an opportunity to share highlights and lowlights of their first-gen experiences. They then opened the conversation to the floor to hear reactions and insights from the audience.

Pascale urged first-gen students to be proud of their stories. “You’re here, you’re welcome here, you deserve to be here,” she said. “Your story has a unique quality to it that has enabled you to be become exactly the person you are.”

Clark added that her door is always open to first-gen students. “Know that you have the Center for Diversity & Inclusion in your corner,” she said. “My job is first-gens, and I am more than happy to talk with you to get your story—I love to get stories. But really, I am here to help you to walk through this process.”