When Emily Johnson started at USC last year, she struggled with the transition from her hometown to a large private university. As a first-generation student, she has dealt with imposter syndrome, but she also needed help with time management skills, on-campus jobs and applications for financial aid and loans.
All of that changed when Johnson signed up for an all-expenses-paid trip through the Marshall School of Business to Peru, which was open to under-represented students.
Through the program, Johnson also attended weekly talks on campus focused on teaching students skills to succeed in college. The seminars helped her adjust to life at USC, but Johnson said she and many other first-generation students struggle to find these resources.
Johnson, an Undergraduate Student Government senator, is working with Sens. Emily Donahue and Omar Garcia to propose a first-generation student center, where students can find all the resources available to them in one office. The three senators are working to co-author the proposal and create the center along with representatives from the First Generation Student Union, Fisher Fellows Program, Norman Topping Student Aid Fund and QuestBridge as well as other members of USG.
Johnson said the center would not only help students find resources but also encourage them to reach out for help and services whenever they need it.
“I think a lot of first-gen students end up just feeling like they’ve already asked for so much that they don’t want to ask for more, and it can really end up sending you back,” she said. “Because you don’t have as wide of a support system. You don’t come into college with networking connections, you have to build that from the ground up yourself.”
Donahue said the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund provided her, along with other students, with resources before classes started. The program, which provides scholarships and resources to first generation students at USC, had a three-day orientation for first-year students, which Donahue said helped connect her to a community of first-generation students.
Donahue hopes the resource center can provide the same network for all first-generation students at USC, so students can talk about their shared experiences and share resources and tips they found useful.
“Being able to confide in someone and not have to feel embarrassed or explain the situation and just having someone to listen, that was just so helpful [for me] in a plethora of ways … especially [because] everyone’s just really supportive,” she said.
Donahue said she doesn’t want the center to be limited by the University’s definition of a first generation student as someone whose parents don’t have a four-year degree. She said students from other backgrounds may face the same difficulties or define themselves as first generation and therefore should also have access to the same resources and community.
“I think that it’s just needed at the University, especially with the intersectionality between … groups on campus who don’t have a space,” she said. “It can be like a Band-Aid on a bigger issue, which is like we need more space [for] a lot of different cultural groups and different identities, but I think it’s a really good start, especially granted the large amount of students who identify as first-gen.”
USG Chief Diversity Officer Jeffrey Cho is one of the people who could help the senators implement the center. As part of his position, Cho said he interacts with representatives from the Office of Student Affairs to explain student perspectives on the University and what solutions student groups would want to see implemented on campus. The representatives he meets with can then advocate for students’ wishes when talking with senior administration officials, he said.
In the past three years, first-generation students have made up at least 15% of first-year incoming students. Cho said that though the University advertises the diversity of its incoming classes and student body, it should also create resources like the center to better serve those students.
“I think that having a first-generation resource center would allow USC to put some impact behind those words and say that, you know, we do have the infrastructure in place to make sure that our first-generation college students get the educational experience that they deserve,” he said.
The University offers various resources for first generation students, including an alumni mentor program through the USC Career Center, a sophomore seminar that teaches students about future career paths and the Fisher Fellows Program, which assists Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences students to research with faculty, prepare for graduate school admissions and study abroad.
Johnson, Donahue and Garcia are currently working on finishing a proposal for the center and planning meetings with University administrators to start on their plans as soon as possible.
Johnson said she questioned whether she belonged at USC. When she started here, she wants the center to be a space for students to come together and receive the resources they need to see that they can succeed in college.
“I would hope you would sort of by building that community remind students like, ‘You are meant to be here. You made it here for a reason,’” she said. “And you might not have the same built-in network as some other students, but that’s OK because we’re going to build that and we’re going to help you through this.”