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Paving the Way for Gen 1 Students

A new program at Seton Hall provides critical resources — and support — to incoming freshmen who are the first in their families to attend college.

At Seton Hall, one in every four freshmen is a first-generation college student — meaning neither parent has a college degree.

Nicole Battaglia ’11
Director of First-Year Initiatives
Freshman Studies
On her first day of classes at Seton Hall, Nicole Battaglia sat in the wrong classroom for an agonizing 35 minutes. It was a small mistake — one that many can relate to — but as a first-generation student, Battaglia worried that she was missing crucial information about how to navigate college. When she became a peer adviser, she learned about campus resources and began to take advantage of them. Now as an architect of the Gen 1 program, Battaglia is on a mission to ensure students at Seton Hall feel more confident and better prepared than she did.

Navigating the first year of college is tough for anyone, but “first-gen” students often face different challenges. Most juggle outside jobs and family responsibilities with schoolwork. Though eager to offer support, their parents can’t share firsthand experience with writing a college essay or navigating dorm-room etiquette. And there’s an intense pressure to make everyone proud and pull off a family first by earning a college degree.

As a result of the difficulties they bump into as freshmen, first-generation students in general are less likely than their peers to finish college in four years — or to graduate at all. Among Seton Hall freshmen, there’s a seven point retention difference between first-gen freshmen and their classmates.

That’s why the University unveiled a new program for its first-generation freshmen in summer 2017. It starts with a weeklong “bridge” in August, but continues throughout the year with academic coaching, scholarship opportunities and pizza-fueled gatherings.

Leidy Nizama, Sophomore
Stillman School of Business
Born in Lima, Peru; Moved to Dover, New Jersey
“My parents moved here so we’d have a chance to get a higher education and do better —the American dream.” Nizama says the biggest lesson the Gen 1 program has taught her is how to ask for help. As first-generation students, “we’ve been alone and doing everything ourselves, so sometimes we forget there are other people we can reach out to. They make sure to mention that [in the Gen 1 program] all the time.”
Here’s a look at what exactly the Gen 1 program entails, the students it’s helping, and the faculty and staff who are powering it.

The Bridge

“The primary goal of the Gen 1 program is to ensure that our first-generation students have a clear sense of belonging and an understanding of the skills they need to perform college-level work,” says Nicole Battaglia ’11, director of first-year initiatives.

For its debut in 2017, the program invited all first-gen freshmen to join a 10-day summer “bridge” program in late August. Twenty-four students signed up.

Each day included guest speakers who shared their expertise on everything from managing stress to using the career center to landing outside scholarships. Mornings incorporated a workshop on college-level math courses, and in the afternoons, students had a grammar and writing workshop to prepare them for college papers. The program also supplied students with a “Seton Hall Dictionary,” so they’d know what people meant by things like “the bursar” or “the Green.”

Jonathan Barcelos, Junior
Stillman School of Business
Union, New Jersey
“I’m going into my third year now as a peer adviser. When I heard that the department was going to start working with first-generation students in particular, I thought that was a good opportunity for me to help those students as well, since I’m a first-generation student myself. I’m excited to help answer all the questions they have, take them to dinner and study halls — to make everyone feel welcome and included.”

On Saturday, the group headed into Manhattan and saw School of Rock on Broadway. They walked down South Orange Avenue together, found the train station, and made their way into the city. Battaglia says it helped the students get used to navigating NYC — and for some, it was also their first time seeing a Broadway show.

On Sunday, they painted positive messages on stones as part of the Kindness Rocks project. Those painted rocks popped up all around campus throughout the fall semester, hidden in bushes or under benches, but no one else knew the story behind them or who to thank.

Omayra Arocho ’99/M.A. ’01/Ph.D. ’17
Assistant Dean of College Engagement and Community Development; College of Education and Human Services.
“Melanie is an extremely dedicated and driven student who has so much to offer to Seton Hall University. I believe I learned just as much from her, if not more, through this purposeful connection.”

Melanie Pacheco, Sophomore
School of Diplomacy and International Relations
West Orange, New Jersey
“When we had our meetings, we could joke around in Spanish. It made the whole setting more comfortable. [Omayra] stressed organization and managing my time correctly. She’d even give me examples of what she did with her own schedule. And she’d put certain goals for me to accomplish — like meeting with a professor during office hours — and then check on them the next time.”

Meeting VIPs
The program kicked off with a barbecue for all the Gen 1 students and their families. Also on the guest list:
Interim President Mary Meehan ’72/M.A. ’74/Ph.D. ’01, who was a first-generation Seton Hall student herself.

That night, each student got a photo standing beside Meehan. They met deans and vice presidents and other high-level administrators. “Right off the bat, they’re making connections to make them feel that they belong,” says Robin Cunningham ’78/M.A. ’84/Ed.S. ’96, associate vice president and dean of freshman studies. “That’s our most important objective: that these students feel comfortable here and know that they could walk into the vice president’s office as easily as anyone’s.”

All Over Campus
“We really tried to throw a net over the whole University community to celebrate first-generation status,” Cunningham says. The program identified about 80 first-gen faculty and administrators and put their names, photos and titles onto posters, then hung those posters all over campus. They also distributed blue stickers with “Gen 1” splashed across them and encouraged faculty and staff to post them in their offices. Students have stuck them up in their dorm rooms, too, and Cunningham reports spotting one on the back of a car recently.

Maggie Hernandez, M.A. ’12
Operations Coordinator Freshman Studies
“I think at the beginning of the fall semester she was a little nervous. Watching her grow over the year was really special to me. The highlight is that we’re going to continue our relationship. We’ve already emailed a few times over the summer and I can’t wait to see her in the fall. She’s such a special young woman.”

Cheyanne Ganpat, Sophomore
College of Arts and Sciences
Raritan, New Jersey
“Besides being a best friend — we know each other so well and joke around and I can talk to her about anything — Maggie also motivates me and is really encouraging. I know it’s weird to say, but she’s also kind of like my therapist. If I’m having trouble in a class or I’m unsure about something, she listens to my problems, advises me on what she knows, and if she doesn’t have the answers, she’ll help me find someone who does.”

Mentors Who Understand
The Gen 1 students received academic coaches and peer advisers, just as other Seton Hall freshmen do. But their mentors had extra insight, since they also had been the first in their families to attend college — or had a special interest in helping those who are.

No Charge
The Gen 1 program, including the summer bridge, was offered free to students. Participants also received a $500 textbook voucher after completing the program.

What Sophomores Say, After Year One

Hannah Curran
“Once the summer program was over, we stayed in touch. We still have a group chat. We try to get dinner or breakfast here and there. We spend a lot of time together. It’s almost like a family.”

Hannah Curran, Sophomore
College of Education and Human Services
Pompton Lakes, New Jersey
“My mom wants to help me, she wants to see me succeed, but she doesn’t always know what advice to give. She watches YouTube videos about college just so she can try to relate more. When it was time to register for classes, I didn’t know what to do. I went to Dunkin’ Donuts with my peer adviser, who’s also a first-gen college student, and he showed me exactly how to do everything.”

Leidy Nizama
“I’ll be hanging out on the Green and I’ll see Dean Gottlieb or Dean Cunningham and wave at them or say hi and talk to them. It’s like a big community. I’ve met some professors who I notice have a Gen 1 sticker on their door. It’s something that connects us. If I go in to talk to them, it’s like, Hey, I noticed you’re Gen 1, too. It opens a new door.”

Elizabeth Rodriguez
“I’m still very involved [with the Gen 1 program]. Our cohort created a first-generation student club on campus, and I’m the president. We have a lot of events planned for this coming semester: stress relief days where we’re going to help people cope with finals and midterms; speakers coming in to talk about scholarship opportunities; people who were first-gen students coming in to discuss their experiences; movie nights and game nights. My goal is to really create a community for first-gen students on campus, even those who weren’t in the summer program.”

Gen 1 Timeline

August 13-22
Summer Bridge Program on campus, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., including guest lecturers, math and English workshops, and a variety of college-readiness activities

Elizabeth Rodriguez, Sophomore
College of Communication and the Arts
Bronx, New York
“My favorite part was definitely the group of friends that I made. As soon as my parents left on Move-In Day, I felt so lonely. But then I was able to contact some of my friends from [the Gen 1 program] and they came to hang out with me. It was great to already have a group of friends there and not feel totally lost.”

August 24
Freshman Move-In Day

August 28
First day of classes

September 26
Pizza party social

October 3 and 31
“Lunch and Learn” sessions to discuss time management and other challenges

October 18
Meet-and-greet to connect with other freshman (318 of them) and sophomore (380) first-gen students who weren’t in the summer program

Brandon M. Larmore ’08
Director of the Academic Resource Center
“I was a mess,” Brandon Larmore remembers of his own early days as a Seton Hall student. “I was confused about what I should be doing and what I needed to know before coming into college. There were certain majors I didn’t even know existed until I got to college. [The Gen 1] students entered with a lot more calm then I was able to. To me, that was one of [the program’s] greatest successes.”

 

 

 

October
Gen 1 parents receive a letter with pictures from the summer program and information about scholarships and fellowships

November 7
External scholarships meeting for all first-gen freshman students

November 16
Meet-and-greet for all first-gen Seton Hall students, faculty and administrator

December 12
End-of-the-semester celebration for Gen 1 students that included food and a photo booth

Summer 2018
Forty-eight students were set to attend the Gen 1 summer bridge this year — exactly double the first year’s number

Two students from the Gen 1 program (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Karmen Yap) were highlighted as part of a Good Morning America story on first-generation students published on GMA’s digital network: goodmorningamerica.com/news/story/surprised-1st-generation-college-students-touching-letters-
parents-57456806

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. 

 

 

 

 

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