First-Generation Students Share Lessons Learned on Their Trailblazing Paths to Success

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According to the Center for First-generation Student Success, 1 in 3 undergraduate students nationwide—nearly five million people—identify as first-generation college students. Across the country, two-year colleges serve a higher percentage of first-generation students than four-year institutions, and City Colleges of Chicago is no exception: Of the 3,806 City Colleges students who earned an associate degree in 2022, just over 60%, or 2,341 students, indicated that they were the first in their families to attend college.

Being a post-secondary trailblazer brings a unique set of challenges and experiences. The Center for First-generation Student Success reports that first-generation students often have fewer familial financial resources than students whose parents have four-year degrees. Without targeted support, they are also less likely to complete a four-year degree compared to peers who have parents with bachelor’s degrees.

Eivan Herrera-Valdez, first generation college student, Harold Washington College 2021 graduate, and current Northwestern University student.

“I think it’s important to talk about how it feels to go through the college and transfer experience as a first-generation student,” said Eivan Herrera-Valdez, a 2021 Harold Washington College graduate now studying psychology and Latinx studies at Northwestern University. “It’s a big change that can be both exciting and a little bit scary.”

Here at City Colleges, targeted student supports make a significant impact on the way first-generation trailblazers like Herrera-Valdez navigate through college. Just ask Amanda Delacruz, a thriving psychology student working toward her associate degree at Truman College.

Amanda Delacruz, first generation college student at Truman College.

“I appreciate the small class sizes at City Colleges, because they make it so much easier to connect with professors about questions or talk about the struggles I may be having,” Delacruz said. “Free tutoring services have also been incredibly helpful after being several years out of high school. Everyone has always been more than willing to help.”

For her part, Wright College student Raine Yung found strength in her college’s career and transfer centers and student activities.

Raine Yung, first generation college student at Wright College.

“Wright has exposed me to amazing opportunities like transfer fairs, internships, and leadership positions within clubs,” Yung said. “The Transfer Leadership Class here introduced me to knowledge and people who have experienced the college process. I now have a sense of direction and intention as a college student.”

These intentional supports and programs are central to City Colleges of Chicago’s mission to address and overcome underlying disparities and inequities of access and graduation in higher education. Federally-funded TRiO outreach and student support programs are available at Truman College, Harold Washington College, and Malcolm X College and are specifically designed to support first-generation students or students from lower-income families. Additional resources offered to our first-generation students include First Year Experience programs, career planning and placement, transfer services, and academic support services like tutoring.

Our first-generation students are quick to share words of wisdom to their first-generation classmates who might wonder how to find success as the first in their families to attend college.

“Take advantage of your college’s resources, advisors, and professors—they all want to help you,” said Yung. “Community college can introduce you to so many opportunities. You just have to take initiative and advocate for yourself.”

Delacruz agrees wholeheartedly: “Use the resources available to you, read those e-mails that come through your student e-mail account, and keep up to date with your college website,” she suggested.

City Colleges of Chicago is proud to join higher education institutions nationwide in this year’s First-Generation College Celebration. The event was started in 2017 by two national non-profits, The Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-generation Student Success. November 8 was selected for the yearly celebration to honor the anniversary of the day a landmark piece of legislation called the Higher Education Act of 1965, which emerged out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Act aimed to level the academic playing field for students of color and low-income or first-generation students through federal grants, loans, and college support programs that target post-secondary access, retention, and completion.

At City Colleges, our robust community of first-generation students, faculty, staff, and alumni are making a difference for their families and communities. To read a staff perspective on being a first-generation student, visit https://news.ccc.edu/2022/11/08/staff-perspective-helping-first-generation-college-students-find-their-path/.