UMSL honors exceptional group with First-Generation Celebration Day

First-generation graduate student Sarah Jimenez poses for a photo to recognize her accomplishments on First-Generation Celebration Day. (Photos by Mona Sabau)

Hundreds of students crossed the bridge to the Millennium Student Center at lunchtime Nov. 7, either just leaving a class or heading to one. Sprinkled among the different majors, career goals and nationalities was a unique group of trailblazers: first-generation students.

With buttons, a photo booth and posters showcasing first-generation University of Missouri–St. Louis students and faculty, New Student Programs staff members invited students to participate in some well-deserved bragging to mark First-Generation Celebration Day.

“It’s important for our students to be able to celebrate the accomplishment of representing their family and being the first one to strive for a college degree,” said Megan Green Simonds, director of New Student Programs.

First-Generation Celebration Day brings similar students together – not just at UMSL. Marking the anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which made obtaining a college degree more affordable, universities across the country recognized their first-generation students’ contributions.

At UMSL, around 3,000 students’ parents don’t have a college education.

Graduate student Sarah Jimenez is among them. Currently pursuing a master’s degree in adult and higher education, she realizes her life contrasts with her parents’ lives.

“I definitely chose a different path than they did,” Jimenez said. “My mom had me in her early 20s, and my dad has been working ever since then. They’ve always wanted to go to school, but they’re really happy that I was able to. They’re really proud of me. That’s for sure.”

Earning a degree – and now a master’s degree – is an uphill climb. But for a first-generation college student, there’s an added challenge. Parents who haven’t gone to college have trouble helping students navigate university culture. Things like the application process or declaring a major come with obstacles.

New Student Media and Communications Coordinator Jacque Flanagan, a first-generation college graduate, experienced that firsthand.

“My parents didn’t have a good understanding of the expectations of them to guide me through college,” she said. “My mom didn’t finish high school. My dad went to college, but he didn’t finish. He was always a huge advocate of hard work. I was ingrained with a hard work ethic. With them to support me, I was able to meet my goal. It just meant so much.”

Flanagan is using First-Generation Celebration Day to support students experiencing the same challenges she did. With varying definitions of the term “first generation,” a wide range of students fit into the category.

“I want to have a better understanding of what UMSL’s first-gen population looks like, so then we can actually start being able to engage with them and find out what resources we need for them,” Flanagan said.

For Simonds, focusing on this group is a year-round priority. In addition to the annual Celebration Day, she is exploring ideas like a welcome event each semester and more scholarships dedicated to first-generation students. She feels that having a place to connect with others is crucial.

Megan Green Simonds, director of New Student Programs, hands UMSL student Andrew Haselhorst a button to celebrate First-Generation Day.

“There’s a variety of offices around campus, including New Student Programs, Multicultural Student Services, Student Involvement and so many more, that are open for all students to visit and build their support team – whether that’s with faculty, staff or their peers,” she said.

Jimenez sees these resources as essential to the academic success of students like her.

“College is a lot of work,” she said. “And if you don’t have anyone that’s been to school before, you need a support system. UMSL has that support already built in.”

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