On USC’s campus, 3,000 of the University’s nearly 19,000 undergraduates possess at least one characteristic that sets them apart from the rest of the University: They are the first in their families to attend a four-year college.
First-generation students, as they are called, have grown as a population at USC over the past few years, with 17 percent of this year’s incoming freshmen falling under this designation — a 5 percent increase from 2010, according to USC statistics. The numbers are even greater in graduate school, where 7,100 first-generation students make up 28 percent of total enrollment. And though it may sound like just another label, falling under the University’s ever-expanding drive to increase diversity on campus, the difficulties that many first-generation students have gone through to get where they are should not be diminished.
In the Daily Trojan’s Fall 2017 supplement, “Power and Privilege,” the story “Bridging the First-Generation Gap” examined some of these difficulties and told the stories of several first-generation students at USC. Though the struggles are diverse and unique to each individual, they reflect a larger set of issues that overlap with those of many other students like them.
Their parents, never having attended a university, are unable to help them with the application process, let alone in navigating college life as a whole. They often come from low-income families, and struggle to put together the funds necessary to pay for their education. And there are subtle, yet pervasive deterrents that stand as roadblocks on their way to achieving success — families that don’t necessarily place a high value on higher education push students to enter the workforce.
Despite all of these barriers, first-generation students at USC have made USC into one of the most prestigious universities in the country. But once they are here, the problems don’t stop — and in many cases, they can actually escalate. First-generation students, particularly those coming from schools in low-income neighborhoods that didn’t place a high emphasis on college-level coursework, may be unprepared to deal with the stress of college academics, requiring counseling or guidance to be as successful as their peers. They may have to work a full- or part-time job to pay for tuition, rent or other necessities, pulling their focus away from their studies. They may even be going hungry in an effort to save money for their tuition.
USC has addressed all of these issues in one way or another in disparate parts of campus, from the Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity, which offers academic planning services, to the Virtual Food Pantry program, which provides gift cards to grocery stores for students in need to purchase meals. But the issue is that these resources are not centralized, and many times, first-generation students simply don’t know where to look for guidance on the unique confluence of issues they face.
That’s where a first-generation student resource center can help. Like other cultural centers on campus, such as the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs or the Asian Pacific American Student Services, a first-generation resource center would provide a central gathering place for students to gather information, ask any questions they may have and feel like they are part of a community on campus. Currently, student-run organizations like the First Generation Student Union are filling this resource gap, but so much they can.
USC should follow other institutions, like the University of California system or Brown University, by setting up a resource center where first-generation students can get financial help, food aid, academic tutoring, free printing, professional advice and numerous other services that so many of them require each day.
The University has made great strides in opening up the campus to students from low-income, non-traditional, underrepresented and first-generation backgrounds over the past few years. Programs such as the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which provides local middle and high schoolers with academic enrichment and full scholarships to attend the University if they are accepted, demonstrate USC’s commitment to recruiting a more diverse student body, particularly from the local community.
However, the help these students receive cannot stop once they step through USC’s gates. Getting in is only the first step of what is usually a long process of navigating the college system, struggling to pay for costs beyond tuition and working against the odds to stay in school, graduate and even attend graduate school. If a student has to drop out or take a semester off because they cannot afford to attend USC or are overwhelmed by a workload they have never before experienced, then so much of the work the University put into getting them to come here will be discredited.
By extending its commitment to supporting diversity beyond the initial recruitment phase, USC will ensure that these students can be successful, and bring what they’ve learned back to their communities. For a school that many deride as the “University of Spoiled Children,” doing so would go a long way toward proving that USC is more than just an ivory tower, but is an accessible institution for all members of the Trojan Family.
Daily Trojan Fall 2017 Editorial Board