By Julia DiGiacomo
First-generation college students and graduates joined April 7 to share their experiences, celebrate identity, and receive education on resources on campus.
The inaugural First Generation Summit worked to raise awareness and support the nearly 25 percent of University of Iowa undergraduate students who identify as first-generation, according to the summit’s event page.
“We’re just hoping this will be a great catalyst so that the university starts focusing a little more on first-gen students, given that they are such a large population of our student body,” UISG Senator and first-generation student Nazira Coury said. “I’m hoping that it’ll start a conversation around experiences of that identity.”
The summit started with addresses from UI President Bruce Harreld and Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers. A panel of students, staff, and faculty shared their personal stories as first-generation students.
There were four breakout sessions in the morning and four sessions in the afternoon on various first-generation-related topics. There were sessions tailored to how to find and succeed in careers, how to transition going home and talking about first-generation identity with family, and how to value working-class heritage, among other subjects.
“The thing is representation does matter, and in this case, this is one of our ways of showing that we support first-gen students,” said first-generation student Tristan Schmidt, the UISG director of academic affairs. “We want them represented, and they are so important to us on campus.”
A resource fair informed students about the campus support available to them. Coury said approximately 16 organizations were available to network and teach passersby more about the experiences of first-generation students.
“Amazing things have happened at this summit,” keynote speaker and founder of FirstGenCollege Consulting Yolanda Norman said. “I’ve learned a lot and definitely learned a lot about all of your stories as first-generation college students and as first-generation college graduates.”
Norman told her personal story, describing how she didn’t feel she belonged as a young first-generation student starting college. Now, she works to support first-generation students.
“We have challenges, absolutely,” she said. “But man oh man, do we have strengths, as pioneers, as trailblazers. We’re amazing, and we’ve got to be able to tell that to the rest of the world.”
A graduation ceremony was staged for first-generation students graduating this spring. The students accepted certificates and posed for photos with Norman to the sound of thunderous applause.
“It’s a way to honor first-generation students, who might not have had the experiences that continuing generation students have had,” Schmidt said. “This is a forerunner in what will hopefully become an institutionalized thing in having a first-generation graduation ceremony.”
He said the majority of funds for the summit was provided by UISG. Other sponsors included GPSG, the Office of the President, academic support retention, Center for Diversity and Enrichment, Office of the Vice President for Student Life, among others.
“The intersectionality of [identities] is really what I love about being first-gen because it’s also one of those hidden identities — you can’t really tell by looking at somebody,” Schmidt said. “It’s something in my experiences I’ve had a hard time explaining, and to be able to say I’m being recognized for this identity is something very crucial to me.”