First-generation students: Stories of success, struggles and plans for the future
By Brianna Kuplent
Intern, Office of University Communications and Marketing
At the start of her first year at Western Washington University, Vanessa Parraga felt overwhelmed with new information and struggled to feel connections. As a first-generation college student, she felt surrounded by people whose parents were able to give them advice on how to navigate the university.
But she did not want to be a burden or ask for help, so she worked to find her own way. Parraga applied for a job as a resident adviser on campus in the winter of her freshman year, the job that became a turning point in her college experience.
Parraga felt alone in the first year, but in fact was part of a larger movement of first-generation students driven to change their futures. Nationwide, about half of college students have parents who did not attend college.
About a third of Western students belong to the first generation in their families to attend college
At Western, first-generation undergraduate students have comprised about 32 percent of Western’s overall population over the past five years.
Over the past few years, Western’s first-generation students have six-year graduation rates of about 63 to 69 percent. That’s better than the national average for first-generation college students, but still a few percentage points below Western’s overall six-year graduation rate.
One of the biggest challenges first generation college students face is navigating the university, said Marli Williams, academic support coordinator for Western’s Student Outreach Services. Many students face similar struggles, she said, but for first generation students these challenges are amplified when their parents do not know how to navigate the system or fill out important paperwork.
But, first generation college students have a certain perspective, courage and resilience that contributes to the campus community, Williams said. Many of Western’s most successful students and student leaders are first-generation college students.
We talked to a few seniors at Western who offered their advice for other first-generation students and all students and families.