By Pamela Sari
Boston University News Service
Jiayi Shi realized her college experience was different from other students while completing her graduate studies in the United States. After beginning her studies at Boston University, Shi realized she is experiencing college life as a first-generation college student.
The U.S. Department of Education defines first-generation students as undergraduates whose parents have not participated in post-secondary education. BU expanded that definition to include the experiences of graduate students as well. According to The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, first-generation college students are often more susceptible to feelings of shame, guilt, confusion and anxiety due to a lack of support from home and academically.
“We usually don’t talk about this experience,” said Shi. “I assumed everybody was the same.”
Shi said that while her parents always encouraged her to get a graduate degree, which that was her goal too, they offered her no other academic support. Compared to other students who receive career resources from college-educated parents, she realized her experience was different.
The Newbury Center is BU’s center for first-generation students and is located in the heart of the campus. The center was established in 2021 with an endowment by Newbury College, which had previously supported students from many backgrounds in Brookline for 57 years before it closed in 2019.
As a Communications Graduate Assistant at the Newbury Center, Shi said she is able to use her experiences as a first-generation graduate student to mentor other first-generation students. Her goal is to provide the guidance she wished she had when she was an undergraduate student.
“It has allowed me to feel what it is like to be in a community,” said Shi. “I didn’t realize the importance of building communities.”
Even though students come from different countries, she feels that all first-generation students share many experiences. Through her experience in advice-giving to undergraduate students, Shi is not only helping others but is growing as a student herself.
“One of the things with the Newbury Center is that first and foremost students are number one,” said Newbury Center Director Maria Dykema Erb.
As a fellow first-generation college student, Erb often relates to the situations expressed by other first-generation students and lets them know they are not alone in what they are feeling.
Erb has learned that what helped her as a first-generation graduate was finding the language to describe her experience. Some of the difficulties she experienced as a student were not because of her own shortcomings, but rather the lacking support systems.
“You are a unique individual but what you are experiencing is not unique to you,” Erb often tells Newbury Center members. “First-generation students experience the same thing which is why we are able to identify patterns and understand.”
She said that one frequent concern she hears from first-generation students on campus is that nobody gives them the time or answers that they need. Other concerns first-generation students have on campus regard hidden curriculums and policies across different colleges within BU, including petitioning for HUB units or graduation requirements and food insecurity, Erb said.
The BU HUB is a general education program committed to emphasizing learning and working across different disciplines outside of a student’s selected major. To combat this, Erb works with the administration to discuss changes to make these repeated challenges easier for students. To address the issue of food insecurity, for example, the center works with Student wellbeing.
“We are working on the individual level and creating community amongst our students,” said Erb. “The additional piece is that it is my role to bring voice to these issues in upper-level administration committees and processes.”
The first-generation identity is what unites the Newbury Center, but they also work to honor everybody’s intersections of identity. The center recognizes that students come from different ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds and potentially identify with a variety of communities like the LGBTQIA+ community and military-affiliated communities.
Through conversations with these students, Erb learns from different first-generation experiences how she can guide the university to better help these students.
“It is layered,” said Erb. “We are here to support students directly and also disrupt the norm and make sure that we are doing a better job at being student ready instead of making sure that students are college ready.”
The Newbury Center also recognizes first-generation students through the Alpha Alpha Alpha (Tri-Alpha) Honor Society. The center founded the Gamma Iota Chapter of the National Honor Society in 2021 to recognize the academic achievements of undergraduate and graduate students, staff, faculty members and alumni at BU.
“It is an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of first-generation students academically,” said Erb.
Nationally, first-generation college students are celebrated Nov. 8. The “First-Generation College Celebration” was launched in 2017 by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-generation Student Success. The day was intended to encourage institutions, corporations and nonprofits to celebrate the successes of their first-generation students, alumni, faculty and staff.
The Newbury Center began its celebrations on Nov. 1 and continued through Nov. 11 with in-person and virtual events, workshops and an art exhibition. There will also be workshops for finals preparation and for exploring social and personal identities.
The Newbury Center also collaborates with other organizations at BU to offer first-generation students the opportunity to share their experiences. The College of Communication Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee held its first “Building COMmunity” event in collaboration with the Newbury Center Oct. 26, where undergraduate and graduate first-generation students were invited to learn more about the center and its resources and speak with mentors.
“It is nice to have that,” said Mohamed Musallam, a graduate student studying public relations at BU. “Boston can seem very elitist in some ways but being able to be with people that come from a similar background as me, and being able to relate to people and have that resource is very nice.”