Frustrations of First Generation Students
“I feel lost in this class.” “Everyone else knows what is going on when I do not.” “My high school didn’t offer advanced placement courses, so I feel like other students are ahead.”
I hear statements like these all the time from students I assist.
I am Kaelen Napoleon, an education specialist in TRIO Student Support Services (SSS). TRIO SSS is a federally funded program that provides services for 350 NDSU students who are income eligible, first-generation, or have a documented disability. Typically, students are from lower-income families, and usually, these families are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, although, a significant number of NDSU students enrolled in TRIO SSS are from White, rural backgrounds. College attainment is typically lower among students from rural communities.1
Every year, I work with more than 60 students in the TRIO SSS program. I meet with each student monthly. Sometimes formally, as a requirement of the program, and sometimes informally, as they pass through the office. When you work in an advising role to students on campus, in the capacity I do, you get to know students from all walks of life on a personal level. You learn of their struggles, celebrate their successes, and get a true sense of where they are coming from and where they are headed. It is an opportunity to gain various perspectives on how teaching and learning is regarded on campus from the views of various NDSU students.
During one of my student meetings this past spring, Eileen*, a TRIO SSS participant,
expressed her feelings of frustration about a math course. She struggled with digesting some of the content of the course, but mostly, she struggled with the presentation of the material and in some instances, the lack of presentation.
“This teacher skips material, assuming we already learned it in high school and then moves on to other content. I am struggling with the new material because I don’t have the background knowledge to master it and the instructor certainly didn’t take the time to teach it,” explained Eileen.
A Capable Student
It would have been uncharacteristic for Eileen to admit, before the math class, that she did not learn the material in high school, or for her to reach out to the instructor.
Learning gaps can be experienced by anyone from any background.
Eileen, a junior at NDSU majoring in Psychology, is a current TRIO SSS participant and a former TRIO McNair Scholar. As a TRIO McNair scholar, Eileen participated in graduate-level research and presented at national conferences. TRIO McNair is a federally-funded education outreach program designed to provide eligible students with effective preparation for doctoral study.
Eileen was paired with an outstanding NDSU faculty member and was required to complete 10 hours of graduate-level research per week. This was extra-curricular academic activity that enhanced understanding of her major. Eileen was capable enough to meet the rigorous demands of the McNair program, in addition to her course load.
I feel compelled to include these details to illustrate how capable a student Eileen is and how confident in her abilities she has been.
Mind The Gap
Eileen has a learning gap. By learning gap, I mean something an instructor might assume students know or have previously learned, but differs from what they have actually been taught.
For Eileen, this assumption was particularly discouraging because everything thereafter was based on concepts and mathematical relationships she had not yet learned.
Learning gaps can be experienced by anyone from any background. They exist mainly because the education foundation among students entering postsecondary education is not uniform. There are also many cultural and socioeconomic factors that contribute to the creation of these gaps that may vary from school-to-school or community-to-community.
For Eileen, this was just one unfortunate event, and one I wish I could describe as uncommon, but I have had other students share similar experiences from their classes.
Perspective on Life at NDSU
Research indicates that students who meet the criteria for the TRIO SSS program are typically less prepared for the rigors of college when compared to their peers. They may struggle to adjust to college norms and are less likely to seek support from instructors.2
However, these characteristics also describe 40 percent of NDSU’s student body who are not enrolled in TRIO SSS, but meet the eligibility criteria of the program. Considering NDSU’s current enrollment is 14,358 students, this means that more than 5,600 students may not be fully prepared for the challenges of postsecondary education.
College for America confirmed that only 14 percent of students, who would be eligible for the TRIO SSS program, but are not enrolled, graduate within 8 years.3 To put that percentage in perspective at NDSU, approximately 5,600 students would qualify for the TRIO SSS program but only about 784 of those students graduate within 8 years. If this student population were more aware of and took advantage of the support available to them, it’s possible NDSU could see a significant increase in retention and 6-year under-graduate rates.
At NDSU, 45 percent of all TRIO SSS participants graduate within 6 years. Last year the TRIO SSS program helped 350 students achieve the following results:
- 98% of all participants maintained good academic standing
- 88.03% persisted (enrolled from 2017 to 2018 or graduated)
- 63 graduated in 2017-18 academic year.
Fortunately, Eileen was not alone. She was able to seek advising and schedule weekly one-on-one peer tutoring appointments in TRIO SSS. Eileen worked extra hard to pass the course and continues to persist at NDSU with her sights still set on graduate school.
Navigating the College Environment
The academic concerns brought to my attention as a TRIO SSS education specialist may be similar to that of other students cross campus, though I can only share with you what has been conveyed to me by program participants.
…experiences like Eileen’s can be discouraging and frustrating for students who have to navigate the collegiate environment alone.
I am sure experiences like Eileen’s can be discouraging and frustrating for students who have to navigate the collegiate environment alone.
TRIO Student Support Services At NDSU
TRIO SSS at NDSU provides individualized advising and academic support, among other resources, to ensure students in the program persist until completion. Students learn about the importance of their mindset as it applies to learning. In TRIO SSS, we…
- Never give up on our students, we are
- Determined to see each one graduate, we
- Strive for student success and we
- Understand the needs and concerns of the students we serve.
Considering NDSU’s current enrollment is 14,358 students, this means that more than 5,600 students may not be fully prepared for the challenges of postsecondary education.
Sometimes it takes a little help to achieve your academic goals. If you have a struggling student, please encourage them to take advantage of the many resources NDSU provides and TRIO SSS is a great place to start. Learn more about what students want from their instructors.
* Student’s name has been changed.
TRIO Student Support Services is currently accepting applications, if you or someone you know might be eligible. The SSS program has an open enrollment and operates on a first-come-first-served basis. View the online application and more details about the program.
1. Ruiz, R. and Perna, L. (2017). The geography of college attainment: dismantling rural”disadvantaged”.
2. Education Advisory Board (EAB) (2016, March 16) Daily Brief.
3. College for America (2017, June 7) Addressing the college completion gap among low-income students.
Kaelen Napoleon is a former special education teacher and a proud NDSU alumna. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in special education at Xavier University of Louisiana and her Master of Education in educational leadership, with an emphasis in higher education, at NDSU.
Napoleon has worked with TRIO Programs at NDSU for the past five years. She is interested in the policies and practices that contribute to student success and is eager to assist challenged or traditionally marginalized students in the completion of their postsecondary academic goals.
Napoleon is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana and has lived in Fargo for the past nine years with her husband and three sons.