DePaul first-generation students find support in group

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DePaul first-generation students find support in group

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Enrollment Management and marketing at DePaul found that 35 percent of the freshmen class this year are first generation students. Though they comprise a small part of the overall population at DePaul, these students may face even more stress as they get acclimated to college.

This stress, as well as the transition into the quarters to follow, is what the new group counseling program Trailblazers hopes to help students get through.

The group was the brain child of Elizabeth Davies, a post-doctoral therapist currently on sabbatical from the University of St. Francis (USF). The program is based on one she witnessed first-hand at USF. First-generation students were given the opportunity to meet and talk with others in similar circumstances.

Through the group, they were taught how to network and manage situations that may arise while at school by supporting one another. Seeing that — students helping each other learn what worked best for them and beginning to feel comfortable — inspired Davies.

Trailblazers, which is offered by and will be held in the spaces of University Counseling Services, hopes to become a safe haven for these students, who may be struggling with duties at home and at school, as well as the loss of privacy that comes with living on campus and networking with potential employers.

Davies said she noticed the programs DePaul had that recruited first-generation students, like the McNair scholars and TRIO programs, and felt it only made sense to “provide this kind of support for students,” she said.

“I understand how they feel. I work with clients here who are struggling, who have parents who say ‘well look we both have to work two jobs full-time and somebody has to take your brother to school and pick him up. You say you have a lab, but what do you care about more, school or family?’” Davies said of the struggle some first-generation students may face. “It can be very hard.”

For senior Susie Mendez, who is unaffiliated with Trailblazers, the collegiate experience was different. As a first-generation college student who saw her brother and sister experience college, and as someone who chose the less expensive community college first route, Mendez said she was groomed by her parents to value her education as a key to success.

As a student considered above average academically, Mendez said college was always on her mind, though being part of the first generation in her family to attend college was not.

“I’m fortunate enough to have had lots of people to help me and encourage me to be where I am today, but not all first gens have it that way,” Mendez said. “There are so many first-generation students who have no clue how to tread the waters of college, so any group who is willing to help them navigate all of this is doing good (for that community).”

Giuliette Recht, one of the leaders of Trailblazers, had all students in mind — regardless of whether or not the idea of college was planted in their minds early on. Recht’s parents were first-generation students and she can remember stories they told of settling into college, as well as finding the supportive community that Mendez had early on.

Latifat Odunewu, the other leader of the group, is also a first-generation student. When she heard of the group, she wanted to help freshmen avoid the isolation she felt during her undergraduate years.

Navigating the culture of the university, as well as learning the system and personalities of professors, was one thing that Recht’s parents struggled with. Trailblazer’s goal is to create a space where students can talk to each other about what they are experiencing in classes, as well as how to find internships, so that the experience won’t feel foreign to them.

“When I heard about this group being offered on campus, it just felt so relevant to me personally. I can imagine that there is a need for this for students who may not realize that there is a resource to help them not feel so alone in the process,” Recht said. “(We) want to make sure people know that this is a safe space that is open to people to speak openly about struggles that they may not realize other people are experiencing too and help each other navigate that.”

Research from College Board in 2013 found that first-generation students were more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework or drop out of college entirely. The board also found they are more likely to begin college less academically prepared than other students.

They are also more likely to work while in college and live off campus, which is true in Mendez’s case. The value of a college degree has increased, but the various identities of these students and the ways they go about getting that degree have changed. For first-generation students, Davies, Recht and Odunewu agreed, having a support group could be vital to walking across the stage.

“Knowing you’re not alone in this and there are other people experiencing the same things I am is important,” Odunewu said. “Some people just don’t know where to go for help and they may not be able to articulate what they need help with. Hopefully by coming to us they can identify with their peers and we can help them piece a part where those struggles are coming from and validate their experiences.”

The group will meet Wednesdays in Lincoln Park from 2-3:30 p.m. For more information, Elizabeth Davies can be reached at (773) 325-8385.