At UTA, first-generation students find a place to thrive

UTA provides support, resources for those who are first in their families to attend college

Monday, Dec 07, 2020 Contact

first generation college students Fall 2020 story
UTA first generation students (from left): Taha Shujaat, Tabitha Koko, Shay Canady and Frederick Tiede

As a first-generation college student at The University of Texas at Arlington, electrical engineering major Taha Shujaat said any academic success he enjoys also belongs to his parents, both Pakistani immigrants.

“To them, I’d imagine it to be a promise that all their compromises and hardships through the years were not in vain,” he said. “Through my sister’s and my own success, they can rest assured that they have a voice in America, a place that I’d imagine was very scary for them to have initially adapted to all those years ago.”

Shujaat shared his experiences during a student panel at UTA’s First-Generation Student Celebration, an annual event honoring those who are among the first in their families to attend college.

The University hosted two panel discussions, one for faculty and staff and the other for students, but both featured the shared experiences of first-generation students. UTA also provided stickers, buttons and virtual meeting backgrounds declaring first-generation pride.

“We want first-generation students to see other students like them, and to break down the imposter feeling that some may carry with them,” said Jennifer Sutton, director of TRiO – Student Support Services and the Title V: IDEAS Project. “We want to approach first-generation student support in a positive, celebratory way. We want students to feel empowered to be first-gen.”

For her and other leaders at UTA, where about 40% of the undergraduate population self-identified as first-generation in fall 2020, the goal is to make sure those students feel comfortable. That means providing dedicated support services, such as Supplemental Instruction, tutoring, peer mentoring, academic coaching and peer-led team learning. All programs are offered by the Division of Student Success, and all are completely free.

Programs like the First-Generation Student Celebration provide support in more intangible ways, helping those students feel seen, understood and included.

“Being a first-gen student can be scary and stressful at times. Letting someone else know that they aren’t 100% alone, even if it’s just one other person, is worth it,” Shujaat said. “Anytime academic opportunities are opened up and made available to people of different backgrounds, more opportunities arise for stimulating intellectual diversity.”

Shujaat and his fellow panelists—Frederick Tiede, a marketing/management major; Tabitha Koko, a finance major; and Shay Canady, a biology major—talked about their decisions to attend UTA, what the college experience has been like for them and what advice they can offer to other first-generation students.

“I think the thing that surprised me the most about UTA was seeing all of my possibilities for the future open up,” Canady said. “I always knew I wanted to go to medical school, but I began to explore other passions. I found that I could connect my passions to my degree and career goals in a way that will help me serve my community better.”

All four of the panelists made note of the open, welcoming community they found at UTA, from students in the classroom to the faculty who have guided them along way.

The necessity of that support is something that Minerva Cordero, senior associate dean in the College of Science, knows well. She was the fourth of six children born in Puerto Rico, and neither of her parents finished elementary school. Because her parents weren’t familiar with the world of higher education, she leaned on her older sisters for guidance.

“It’s really important to have those mentors, those people who are ahead of you who can mentor and nurture you,” said Cordero, who was a panelist during the faculty and staff discussion.

When first-generation students earn their degrees, it’s an incredible moment for everyone—the students, everyone who helped get them there and everyone who will benefit from their hard work and perseverance for years to come, Cordero said.

Sutton agreed, noting that the connection between student success and the well-being of those students’ families is exactly the point.

“If we make this investment as an institution, in valuing students who are first in their families to attend college, we’re changing the trajectory of those families,” Sutton said. “Their family tree will grow and flourish exponentially. It’s another way that UTA is more than an institution that grants degrees. We’re changing society.”

Written by Amber Scott, University Advancement