September 4, 2015 — The University of Detroit Mercy is making a big effort to help get more first-generation students through college. These students, the first in their family to attend college, make up one-fourth of UDM's freshman class and will have access to resources to help them succeed.
“Our first-gen students at UDM are incredible,” said Mary-Catherine Harrison, associate professor of English and director of the university’s Academic Exploration Program. “They are risk-takers. In many cases, they are the first person in their entire extended family to go to college.”
Rafael Cruz, a professional mentor in UDM’s student success center, was one such student. “I wasn’t just doing this for myself anymore,” he said. “I was carrying my neighbors on my back, my family on my back.” Faced with the high expectations of his community, Cruz was extremely stressed, and when things didn’t go smoothly, he felt it even more acutely.
First-generation students don’t have the same built-in network of college grads that continuing-generation students have, and they have to manage the transition to college without a parent guiding the way, said Harrison. “It can be overwhelming navigating the complexities of college life: How do you talk to professors? How do you figure out financial aid? What is the right major?”
To provide extra support, the UDM program will pair staff and faculty with first-generation freshmen in both formal and informal situations where some of those questions can be answered. They will have access to individualized academic coaching from university professionals and upperclassmen, tutoring, and assistance with financial aid literacy. They will also participate in the university’s First-Year Experience program, which includes monthly workshops about the transition to college, service learning opportunities and leadership development.
Additionally, UDM has received a new five-year, $1.1-million Student Support Services grant from the U.S. Department of Education, part of a federal grant program aimed at helping first-generation and low-income students.
Joe Eisenhauer, dean of UDM’s business school, was also the first in his family to go to college. He recalled receiving brochures in the mail from private colleges and his father telling him not to consider them as the family couldn’t afford those schools. After Eisenhauer mentioned that there were grants and loans to help with the cost, his father said Eisenhauer could attend if he paid for it himself.
“My education has been an investment that has paid for itself many times over,” Eisenhauer said. “You can’t let yourself be intimated by the unfamiliar. You just have to keep asking questions.”