Montclair senior Alexa Quito Espinoza and her friends were discussing personal hardships when one said “That’s why we should be proud to be first-gen.” Unfamiliar with the term, Quito Espinoza asked her what it meant. Upon learning that first-generation means you’re the first in your family to attend college, she realized the term applied to her and is a badge she now wears proudly.
“I realized that being first-gen is not something that you should be ashamed of but rather something that you should celebrate,” she says. “It’s something that I am proud of, and it’s something that my family is very proud of.”
That conversation, which took place in her apartment last year, made her realize that it’s important to let others know about her first-gen status. Today, she proudly introduces herself as first-gen and as the founding secretary and vice president of the Delta Chi chapter of Alpha Alpha Alpha or Tri-Alpha, the national honor society for first-generation college students which was founded at Montclair last spring. Tri-Alpha inducted 52 Montclair students and staff members in a ceremony in March. Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Junius Gonzales and Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life Dawn Meza Soufleris were honorary inductees.
Tri-Alpha and First-Gen Initiatives, part of the recently created Office of Student Belonging, sponsored Montclair’s first official National First-Generation College Celebration Day with a meet and greet at the Student Center on November 8, a day celebrated on college and university campuses nationwide. Dozens of Red Hawks mixed and mingled, enjoyed food and competed for prizes by playing First-Gen Bingo.
Jasey Bedoya, assistant director of First-Generation Initiatives, pointed out that “hundreds of colleges and universities are celebrating this day and because first-generation initiatives at Montclair State just started this past fall, we decided to celebrate this as a welcome to the university and show that we are here to encourage and support our first-gen students.”
Bedoya shared with those gathered that more than half of Montclair students identify as first-generation college students and about 75% of first-year students identified as such. Earlier this semester, First-Generation Initiatives hosted a block party for freshman and transfer students to meet and make connections. The office also plans to host other events and launch a mentoring program to support first-gen students.
“Being first-gen is all about storytelling,” Bedoya says, “where students can share their experiences about what they went through and allow others to hear that they’re not alone in this journey to complete a college degree and get into their fields.”
National First-Generation College Celebration Day is observed on November 8 to coincide with the signing of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. Part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, the HEA was designed to help level the educational playing field for people of color or from impoverished backgrounds.
More recently, a bipartisan, bicameral resolution, known as Senate Resolution 437, expressing support for the official designation of November 8 as “National First-Generation College Celebration Day” was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate on November 21, 2021.
“First-generation college students are critically important and an increasing population at nearly all institutions of higher education,” according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and The Suder Foundation.
Quito Espinoza stopped by the Montclair Student Center ballroom after her on-campus job because she realizes it’s important to support other first-gen students.
“Being first-gen means that you went through hardships first to pave the road for your family members, for friends who aren’t aware what we struggle with to be here today,” she says.
Roshorn Shivers Jr., a graduate student in Higher Education, and a graduate coordinator in the Office of Student Belonging, was on hand to support students, particularly students of color.
“I think it’s very important to celebrate this accomplishment,” he says, adding that “there are not that many men of color getting degrees, especially in higher education. Representation matters. I want to be that voice of reason that advocates for students like me. I want my Black brothers out there to see someone who looks like them so that they know they can come to school and get an education and feel comfortable.”
Recalling how he had to navigate completing FAFSA forms on his own, Shivers is passionate about helping other first-gen students. If sharing knowledge he gained can “help a student out with their college transition or make their experience during undergraduate or graduate school easier, then I feel I’ve done my job,” he says.
He encourages first-gen students to obtain a degree. “I can’t stress that enough,” Shivers says. “Especially if you’re the first in your family to do it. Establish a legacy. Be a trailblazer.”
Already a groundbreaker in his family, Shivers hopes to continue blazing trails by eventually earning a doctoral degree.
Quito Espinoza also is not done paving new paths. She’s currently preparing for the LSAT or Law School Admission Test, which she’ll take in January; she hopes to enroll in law school next fall.
“We should bring more awareness to what first-gen really is. Like I said, it’s not an easy path,” she says. “It’s very difficult to pave the road for your family members who look up to you or celebrate you. I feel it’s important to let them know it’s not easy but I’m doing it because I want to make you proud, I want to make myself proud.”
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