Being the first
First-gen (/fûrst′jĕn/) — A first-generation college student is defined as a student whose parents/legal guardian have not completed a bachelor’s degree in the United States.
A pillar of the SMU Ignited campaign is to empower outstanding students regardless of their financial means and make the SMU experience possible for all high-achieving, future world changers. In addition to funding scholarships that help alleviate economic barriers, the University seeks to promote academic and social success among students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.
For first-gen students, that means overcoming the hurdle of not having generational knowledge from which to draw upon during their college journey. The Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) helps alleviate that challenge, providing tutoring, mentoring, free printing, access to technology and textbooks, study abroad assistance, and emergency funds for unforeseeable hardships all under one roof. Rotunda Scholars and the First-Generation Initiative, as well as the student-led First-Generation Association, also aim to remove barriers and create a welcoming community.
Loyal donors and fundraising drives like SMU Giving Day make these life-changing programs possible. Read on to learn how these are initiatives are transforming the student experience.
The rise of a community
Briana Morales ’21, ’24
Briana Morales ’21, ’24 holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. She will graduate in May of 2024 with a Master of Science in counseling from the Simmons School of Education and Human Development. She plans to pursue a career in counseling and offer services that integrate animal therapy.
After struggling through her first two semesters at SMU, balancing multiple jobs, lacking family support and performing below her academic potential, SMU alum Briana Morales ’21, ’24 considered giving up on her SMU degree. But an email inviting all first-gen students to the Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) landed in her inbox and changed her outlook.
The email connected her to Matthew Robinson, director of Student Persistence and Achievement at ACE, who linked her with programs and resources that helped her academically, financially and socially.
“Just having one person believe in me and want me to succeed in what I wanted to do was huge for me. I had never had that at that level before,” Morales says. “It helped me start to believe in myself, and that changed everything.”
She found an on-campus job to replace one of her three off-campus jobs, freeing her to be more involved on campus. ACE became her hub, providing a private Scholar’s Den study space – a place to be around students who share similar backgrounds, learn about campus activities, connect with tutors and print papers for free.
First-generation students do have a lot of strengths. They are brave, and they are strong and courageous. But they also have a lot of struggles. It’s so important for them to know that they belong at SMU, especially with SMU’s culture being predominantly more privileged individuals.
– Briana Morales ’21, ’24
Briana’s energy soared. She improved in her classes and gained a new focus: bringing together the first-gen community on campus. She chartered the First-Generation Association, a student organization.
Big change followed on the Hilltop. The SMU Student Senate added a permanent position for a first-generation representative and Provost Elizabeth G. Loboa added a first-generation representative to the Provost’s Student Advisory Board.
Across campus, professors began displaying the First-Generation Initiative’s “First Gen Proud” stickers to show their support.
Why it matters
Today the First-Generation Association that Briana helped charter has approximately 110 members, including first-gens and first-gen allies. Its social engagement and awareness initiatives are empowering minds and changing the way people think.
On being first-gen
Here is what other leaders in the first-gen community have to say.
Abena Marfo ’22
SMU senior Abena Marfo ’22 will graduate this May with three degrees: a B.S. in sociology, B.S. in health and society and B.A. in human rights. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health and potentially a Ph.D., with the aim of a career in public health policy. During her time at SMU, she has been a Crum Commons residential assistant, an Undergraduate Admission student ambassador, a Rotunda Scholar Fellow, a Human Rights Fellow and an Engaged Learning Fellow with research focusing on maternal health care and its intersection with race and socioeconomic status.
“Before, I felt like I should make myself smaller, but that has shifted through the aid of First-Gen Association,” says First-Generation Association member Abena Marfo ’22.
Even as a member of Rotunda Scholars, a program that aims to help traditionally underrepresented first-year students achieve early success at SMU, she felt different, identifying as a “minority” and “low-income.”
“I was very scared to ask questions, because I thought I should be very humble and thankful that I’m even here,” explains Abena. “It’s important to have a place that’s curated specifically for first-gen students – students who are statistically proven to have a hard time transitioning into the SMU campus life and college life in general. Now I know that I am able speak up. I can use the resources and not feel guilty.”
Teresa Acosta ’22
SMU senior Teresa Acosta ’22 is a double major in human rights and biology and a double minor in Spanish and history. She is a McNair Scholar, Human Rights Fellow and HSF Scholar who serves as residential assistant at the SMU Service House. She is currently applying to graduate school to obtain a master’s in public health.
To all first-gen students, Teresa Acosta ’22 says, “I am here as a resource.”
Teresa serves as the inaugural first-generation student senator on the SMU Student Senate and uses her platform to spread the word about resources available on campus. She is also working through official channels to establish a universal criterion at SMU for identifying as a first-gen student. Currently at least three definitions exist on campus, depending on the department. She says many students have told her that relaying personal information to explain why they identify as first-gen feels like reliving personal or academic trauma. Having a universal definition and awareness would help alleviate that and ensure first-gens seek the resources they need to be successful.
Cinthia Resendiz ’21, ’22
SMU alum Cinthia Resendiz ’21, ’22 is pursuing an M.S. in accounting at the Cox School of Business and serves as a Student Persistence and Achievement graduate assistant. After graduation in May, she will start a career in public accounting in the audit department of PwC. She holds a BBA in accounting and B.A. in Spanish. While a student at SMU, she was a BBA Scholar, Mustang Scholar and Rotunda Scholar.
Cinthia Resendiz ’21, ’22 says her involvement in the Rotunda Scholars program helped her learn how to embrace the college experience. As an undergraduate commuter student, she did not have the first-year dorm experience or the constant influx of social information that comes with it. Instead, her Rotunda friends became a lifeline to campus involvement. If not for the connections she made through them, she says she may have missed out on some of her favorite SMU memories like Homecoming and the Boulevard.
“It’s nice to be told to strive for more – do more than go to school and go home; do more than take a test and go home,” says Cinthia. “It really helped me be a part of the community and feel that I was welcomed into the SMU community as well.”