Beating the First-Generation Blues

In a talk to students, writer and adjunct faculty member Michael Torres recalled his first days at a four-year college as a surprisingly lonely time.

He shared one scene from his first week:

“There’s all these little pockets of friends and people that know each other,” he said. “I realize they not only knew each other but knew their way around campus and I didn’t. And there was no one that first week – even that first semester – that I could connect with.”

Maybe it’s old movies or just the way we Wish Things To Be, but being the first in one’s family to attend college carries with it some super-happy images: An exciting new world of learning, new friendships and conquering the world one class at a time.

A podcast series by and for first-generation students at Minnesota State Mankato is available.

The reality, though, is different for a lot of first-generation students. That’s why programs such as Finding Your Place have been underway at the University for a few years and why an hour of sharing stories is set for Friday, November 8.

The Finding Your Place Storytelling Event at noon. Friday, Nov. 8, is open to all – especially first-generation students. Here, a few stories will be told by those who have navigated the uncertainty of being first-generation college students. Attendees are invited to share their own experiences and questions.

The Finding Your Place event has existed in various forms for several years (Torres’ story was given in March, 2017) with coordination by communications professor Dave Engen among others. This year, Engen is working with a new grant-funded group on campus called Maverick Firsts.  The goal of the group — a mix of students and faculty — is to help build a community for first-generation students through heightened awareness of their situation.

Engen estimates 40 percent of students at universities such as Minnesota State Mankato are first-generation. Their challenges include not only comfortably fitting in, but getting good information on the basics of college.

As Torres illustrated, first-generation students often don’t have a group of people around them who can provide information and often struggle with asking for help. It can bring students perilously close to dropping out.

Dave Engen

“Generally speaking, research suggests although they bring many strengths to college – many unique experiences and strengths – on average first-generation students experience a wider variety of challenges: Finding your place identity- wise, finding a way to get engaged and finding information about college.”

Engen has long been a champion of storytelling as a key to understanding communities. With longtime adjunct photojournalism instructor John Cross, Engen authored a moving  collection of stories centered around a downtown Mankato café and its regulars titled The Wagon Wheel Project. And along with Century College faculty member Robert Jersak, he recently helped create a student-run Finding Your Place podcast. It’s a casual presentation by past and present students who have walked the uncertain walk of the first-generation enrollee.

“The idea was to use complex, compelling stories from people who have been there,” Engen said of both the podcast and past Finding Your Place events. “What we wanted to do was find really captivating storytellers who’ve had complicated journeys in college and would share that in a non-club-you-over-the-head kind of a way, but would share it as a story of their evolution, of their joys and struggles as they went along in college.”

Few of which are pretty.

“We wanted stories of struggle and accomplishment,” Engen said.

Among those sharing stories Nov. 8 is author and communications faculty member, Rachael Hanel. Hanel’s experience as the first in her family to attend college, she said, was heavy on naïveté but also heavy on reaching out to fellow students and faculty.

Rachael Hanel

“I was totally charting my own path and figuring this out,” Hanel said. The experience led to an enjoyable and rewarding college career, she said, as well as an identity she’s carried with her well after graduation.

“Even to this day, I identify myself as a first-generation college student.” She said. “That would be my main point to these students here right now: That will always be part of your identity. Even after you get your diploma, you’re still a first-generation college student.”

  • Finding Your Place Storytelling Event
  • Noon (preceded with an 11:30 a.m. first-generation resource fair)
  • Friday, Nov. 8
  • Centennial Student Union Ballroom