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A Generation Gap

News & Features | November 3, 2014

In the spring of Katelyn Montalvo’s sophomore year, Tufts Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris spoke to Montalvo’s Tisch Scholar cohort. During his presentation, Montalvo discovered the two had something in common: they both identified as first-generation college students.

Afterwards, Montalvo approached Harris, sharing her idea to host a panel of faculty, staff, and students discussing the first-generation student experience.

“He said, ‘I support you,’” Montalvo—now a senior—remembers. “He said, ‘I’ll be on the panel. Get other people to do it, I’ll book a room for you, just make a Facebook event and do it.’ He inspired me.”

With that event, Montalvo revived the First-Generation Student Council she’d first joined during her freshman year. That particular edition of the group had floundered after its faculty facilitator was laid off over the previous summer.

Over the past couple of years, with the growth of that council, first-generation students have become increasingly visible on campus. The Council’s “I’m First” campaign aimed to do just that: raise awareness of the first-generation experience at Tufts. Right now, Montalvo thinks we don’t talk about it enough—and she says it could lead to bigger issues on campus.

On paper, compared to other universities, Tufts doesn’t have difficulties with retention or graduation rates, the major concerns traditionally attributed to first-generation students. According to CollegeMeasures.org, the American Institutes for Research’s college data tool, 97.1% of Tufts freshmen stay for at least a second year (98th percentile among private, not-for-profit colleges) and 92.3% of those who matriculate graduate within six years (97th percentile).

But Montalvo says that GPA and attrition rates don’t tell the whole story, and that we should instead be focusing on emotional well-being. She’s trying to help Tufts do just that, through coordinating the Council—her Tisch Scholars project and work-study position—and through her American Studies senior special project, for which she’s researching effective methods of support for first-generation students at schools like Tufts.

Right now, Tufts has the Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts (BLAST) and its engineering counterpart, BEST, through which a small cohort of incoming freshmen, some first-generation, take a summer course and receive extra support and counseling. Tufts’ partnership with QuestBridge provides assistance with applications and financial aid to high-achieving, low-income students, as well as support after they get to school through the Quest Scholars. An advising program called “Promoting Retention in Science and Engineering” offers lunch seminars for students in STEM majors designed to create community and acquaint students with their resources.

But at the same time, other schools in the NESCAC have far more structured administrative support provided to first-generation students. Williams College offers a pre-orientation program specifically catered to first-gen students and their families, a model that Montalvo wishes were available at Tufts. In March, Amherst College hosted the second annual First-Generation College Student Summit, which gathered 125 students from 23 campuses to discuss their experiences. This fall, Bowdoin College began hosting monthly dinners bringing together first-generation students and faculty.

We don’t know the demographics of those 2.9% of students who leave after freshman year or 7.7% who fail to graduate in 12 semesters. But we do know that nationally, first-generation students tend to graduate at lower rates, especially when they do not have adequate support. At Tufts, most of the specific support for first-generation students comes from the council. The question here: should it be the first-generation students’ job to support each other?

“I had to start this,” Montalvo says. “I have administrative support, but this was totally grassroots. It just shows where [the administration’s] support really is.”

Laura Doane has been involved with the latest iteration of the First-Generation Student Council. “It feels like we’re putting all the pressure on the students,” she admits, but still says she really believes “in this type of student-run structure with administrative support.”

As Tufts’ Associate Dean for Orientation and Student Transition, Doane oversees all orientation programs, supervises pre-major advising, and assesses the current programs’ effectiveness for the student body.

She explains that the limited federal definition of a first-generation college student makes it difficult to provide support on an institutional level to all students who need it, rather than only those who meet the definition. For example, most international students are considered first-generation by the U.S. government, no matter their income bracket, because neither of their parents has a degree from an American university. But Montalvo, whose mother graduated from a community college after she was born, isn’t.

For this reason, the Council focuses on identity: “If you self-identify, then welcome to the council,” Montalvo says. “We’re here to support you—we’re not going to say you’re not feeling the way we feel. So come join us.”

When students have the opportunity to self-identify as first-generation, the administration can provide support to those who want it, rather than offering support only to those who fit the federal definition. But Doane also recognizes the drawbacks of a student-supported system of support.

“My fear with all student groups is that it peters out,” she says. She’s seen it happen before: seven or eight years ago, a first-generation club didn’t last when its most-involved student leader withdrew from Tufts. Montalvo and Doane are working to build a structure of leadership for the council to facilitate its presence on campus after Montalvo’s impending graduation.

This year, the council is also shifting its focus from establishing its place in the school to reaching out to students. Freshman Gregory Chin is one of the Council’s newest members. While he sees the Council as “a great budding community,” he wishes Tufts were doing more.

“Many first-gens like myself are accustomed to doing things on our own, and may not … know when or how to ask for help. Many of us are used to internalizing our stress and staying silent,” he explains. “An outreach effort to engage first-gen students with available resources … would be a welcome endeavor.”

But there’s a fundamental disconnect: many of Tufts’ higher ups, from Harris to many trustees to President Monaco himself, identify as first generation. Why haven’t they already made first-generation support a priority?

Doane thinks that being first-generation has a different significance today than it did historically. Today, she says, “there’s obviously arguable access points, but theoretically, everyone in this country could get to college, with the right support. I mean, that’s really new. I’d say 20 years at the most.”

The first-generation students of the past, the ones who sit in offices in Ballou and in the front of our lecture halls, had a different experience; not everyone could get to college, but once they did, their access points had nothing to do with their first-generation status.

Now, however, Tufts Admissions specifically recruits students from schools where not everyone goes to college. Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin bragged on matriculation day this year, while introducing the Class of 2018, that 12% was “first-generation college bound.” The result of these efforts, in combination with the cultural changes Doane describes: today’s first-generation Tufts students do not look like the Board of Trustees, and they have different needs.

The administration is interested in engaging with students on the issues; student representatives have presented to the Board of Trustees and Montalvo says the Council has met with various committees to express their wants and needs in terms of support. But interest doesn’t always mean action.

“The question for me is: are we catching up fast enough?” Doane asks. “Are the populations of students that we’re recruiting—because we know that their experiences make a richer community—supported in the same way as the sort of the stereotypical, traditional populations that have been recruited for hundreds of years?”

We know Tufts is creating diversity, but is the institution supporting that diversity?

Even Doane isn’t sure. “I think there’s awareness that we could do better,” she explains. “How do you allocate your resources effectively? The answer is, we do the best we can.”

The real issue here: if we don’t do better, we’ll never know. Allocating resources on an institutional level is difficult. But when Tufts fails to support first-generation students, there’s no legal action, no loud protests. Instead, they leave Tufts.

“We work hard and we get here,” Montalvo explains. “But then we come here and we’re like, we don’t fit in. There’s no support for us and then, we leave. Our attrition rate is super high compared to the rest of college students … I’ve seen a lot of students fall really hard.”

Is that carefully crafted diversity, so lauded at matriculation, still present at commencement? Will 12% of the class of 2018 be the first in their families to earn college degrees? Honestly, we don’t know. At Tufts and other elite universities, there’s a lack of research on the first-generation experience.

Montalvo’s senior project may be able to assist the Tufts administration in their efforts to support first-generation students. What Tufts should do first, she says, is provide guidance to Tufts’ administrators, faculty, and staff on how to address the specific needs of first-generation students. At one point, Montalvo says, she went to Career Services to discuss her post-graduation options.

“I had to tell her as a first-gen student, I am doing this for myself. I need you to break this down for me,” Montalvo recounts. “She didn’t really know how to do that. They’re just used to talking to people that already have this capital.”

Chin echoes that mindset, saying he wishes Tufts would facilitate connections between first-generation students and first-generation faculty, staff, and alumni. But for now, he’s excited about the First-Generation Student Council’s potential to “create powerful lasting change at Tufts.”