Program provides community for first-gen students

Infrmation technology freshman Trenton Moore (left) and zfinance freshman Abby Flores study in the Elbow lounge of Residence Hall South for midterms. The new First Generation LLC is meant to aid students in achieving success on the same level as their peers. Photo by Ambarina Hasta | Mercury Staff.

UTD will add one more living space to its current eight academically-focused areas. Rather than have a major-specific focus, however, this living space is designed for students whose parents did not complete a four-year college program in the United States.

The university administration hired Mary Jane Suarez Partain in 2006 to launch Living Learning Communities, a predominantly freshman program based on career interest or specific degree programs. She is the leader of an effort to ease the transition from high school to college for individuals who are the first in their family to attend college in the United States.

According to a study by UCLA in Forbes, first-generation students are 15 percent less likely to graduate college than students who have parents with higher education, a distinction Forbes calls an “Opportunity Gap.” Partain said the new First Generation LLC is meant to create a clear path for first-generation students so they can be just as successful as their peers.

“There are many folks who might’ve gone to school elsewhere, but it’s a different experience than coming to university in the U.S.,” Partain said. “We realized that a lot of the services we were providing to first-generation students still weren’t relevant to folks whose parents hadn’t gone to school in the United States. Because what it’s really about is not understanding the landscape of a university.”

Partain is also a first-generation student. Her family is from the Philippines, and neither of her parents attended college. She said she did not know what resources were available to students.

“When I started at university, I had no idea what financial aid was,” Partain said. “I worked and went to school full-time, and I could’ve gone to school for free. I had no idea that I could’ve worked out for free or that there was a career center or a health center, because there was nobody to go before me who knew that stuff. Something that’s common sense to you isn’t common sense until someone teaches it to you first.”

The First Generation LLC allows students to live in a community in Residence Hall Northwest with a PA who is also first-generation. The LLC administration is admitting 24 students — eight rooms of three students — for their first class of freshmen in the program, and is partnering with UTD admissions to connect with potential students. Partain said the rooms could be further categorized by career interests or majors, but the details depend on the students who apply.

Global business freshman Alyanna Delloro is a first-generation college student. Her parents attended a university, but not in the United States. She said they weren’t familiar with the Texas college application system or financial aid, and that made the process very difficult. They filled out the FAFSA incorrectly, and because of that, she never received federal student aid.

“It was really hard because all my high school friends had parents who were experienced with the whole college process,” Delloro said. “It made me feel so behind and unprepared. Being around other people who felt the way I did would’ve been so helpful.”

Neuroscience freshman Sandra Hagenimana’s parents received their college degrees in Rwanda. She said the most difficult part of entering college with parents who received degrees abroad was making sure to include her parents in the process.

“I know for a lot of first-generation students, regardless of whether or not their parents went to college, there’s a tendency to disconnect or oversimplify your school life because, ‘Mom and Dad won’t understand,’ or ‘I don’t want to have to explain this 100 times,’” Hagenimana said.

Hagenimana opted to live in the pre-health LLC at UTD. She attributes her smooth transition into college to roommates and residence hall neighbors whose parents also attended school outside the United States.

“I think that an LLC designed for first-generation students would be a wonderful idea,” Hagenimana said. “Being around other students who understand each others’ backgrounds may be enough to calm the nerves of many freshmen.”

The students living in the First-Generation LLC will take a freshman seminar course in the fall and a government class in the spring together. They also host an event for parents at move-in, monthly after-hours programming, game nights and a formal dinner with Associate Dean Courtney Brecheen.

The specifics of what will be offered depend on the needs and wants of students, Partain said. In addition, each individual will receive a mentor.

“We’ve already had over 20 faculty and staff reach out to us to be mentors, and we’re pretty excited about that,” Partain said. “We think there’s going to be great support.”

Around 700 students on campus currently live in an LLC. Partain said the overall goal of each program is to make the transition from high school to college a shift from one’s actual family to another family: a community based on connection.

“If you have a lot of commonalities, it’s easier for you to develop a friendship,” Partain said. “If you can develop a friendship, you develop a sense of community. And if you have a sense of community, then you stay and you do well.”

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