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First-generation college students deal with stress, conflicted feelings

A UCLA study found that less than 30 percent of first-generation college students earn a college degree after four years.

Days before heading to Missouri Southern University for the fall semester, St. Louisan Kendric Carlock was volunteering at the arts non-profit Story Stitchers. Carlock is about to begin his senior year.

"You see all the hard work that you put in, all the struggles and obstacles that you have to go through, to be able to get a bachelors degree, being able to see the end is really exciting," said Carlock, proud that he's the first in his family to attend college.

Carlock said being a first-generation college student comes with challenges. Students whose parents attended college have a resource at home that first-generation students do not have. Carlock said his parents often weren’t able to provide the support and information he needed because they had never experienced college.

"It's really difficult to make a plan without background information for previous experiences, when there's no one to sit down and help you with it, or say 'OK, this is what you want to do,' or 'When I was younger, this is how it was,'" Carlock said. "When you don't have those kind of conversations, you really just go dive into the water and hope that you can swim."

At times it can feel like swimming with sharks for the nearly one-third of U.S. college students who are first-generation. They're more likely to be minorities, less likely to have taken advanced classes in high school, less likely to have confidence in their academic ability and less likely to graduate. A UCLA study found that less than 30 percent of first-generation college students earn a college degree after four years.

"They drop out at a rate higher than most others, so we really want to pay attention to them in a whole host of ways," said Jennifer McCluskey of Maryville University. "Challenges can be academic, financial, and personal. Those are the reasons that they leave college so we pay attention to those issues and those concerns before they get here."

McCluskey is the Vice President for Student Success at Maryville. She says the stress of going to college can be even greater for students who are the very first in their families to attend college. According to McCluskey, first-generation students sometimes struggle with conflicting feelings of guilt and pride.

"I'm going to change the future of my family and so there's a great sense of pride in the first-generation college student," said McCluskey. "The flip side of that some students deal with is the guilt, the guilt of leaving the family, and the sacrifices that the family is having to make."

McCluskey said first-generation students and their families can feel like they're embarking on a journey to an unknown place where they don't even know how to speak the language.

"First-generation college students don't know was FAFSA means. They might now know what syllabus means and so we work with students to educate them on even our lingo that we use at colleges and universities," said McCluskey.

Third-year Maryville student Brittany Pomillee is a pre-med biology major with a full-ride scholarship. Pomillee said she's thriving after getting off to a tentative start as a first-generation student.

"I think the biggest struggle at first was confidence," said Pomillee. "Am I good enough to go to school? Is this something I really want to pursue? Is it going to be too hard? Am I smart enough?"

Pomillee credits Maryville University's Student Success program which includes peer tutoring and life coaches like Artis Maxwell.

"Typically when I meet with a first generation student, of course they're a little bit nervous. This is a brand new experience for them," said Maxwell. "We reach out to students before they even set foot on campus."

"They are really supportive," said Pomillee, "and understanding that it's really hard being a first-generation student sometimes, but that I'm not alone."

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