A family first

Support, resources lead first-generation students to success

by Leah Twilley

Paris France has an usual name and a firm goal: graduating from college.

“It was embedded in me since middle school,” said France, who attended the Grand Valley-chartered University Preparatory Academy in Detroit.

Annual summer camps at Grand Valley that were organized by University Prep allowed France to become familiar with the Allendale Campus and buildings. She lived in the dorms, ate on campus and attended classes.

photos by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

Paris France is among the students at Grand Valley who are the first in their families to attend a four-year university.

“The university’s model of personalized attention and small class sizes was what I was used to at University Prep and I already knew the campus, so it was a natural fit,” she said.

France, who graduated in April with a bachelor’s degree in advertising and public relations, is among a large population of students at Grand Valley who are the first in their families to attend a four-year college or university. In the fall of 2012, more than 44 percent of the total number of undergraduate students — about 9,510 individuals — are first-generation students.

Nancy Giardina, vice provost for Student Success, said the university’s accessibility is one reason why Grand Valley has a higher percentage of first-generation students than many other institutions of similar size.

“As a nation, we are seeing a bigger need and desire for education,” Giardina said. “Specifically in West Michigan, a growing demographic among first-generation students are people from the farming industry. Many first-generation students can be found in urban areas as well.”

France said her mom and high school cheerleading coach were her biggest supporters and influenced her to attend college. “My mom has always been someone I look up to,” she said. “My parents want the absolute best for me and since they didn’t get the opportunity to go to college, they want me to succeed.”

Paris’ mother, Loretta France, was determined that her daughter would make it through her first year. “She’s the oldest and first one in the family to go to college,” she said. “I remember during her first year she felt bogged down and tired and felt like it was too much, but she realized she could make it and do it on her own.”

Paris France, second from left, is pictured with friends from Alpha Kappa Psi Business Fraternity at the University Club in the DeVos Center.
 

France is also the first of her cousins to attend college. “One of my cousins, who goes to Western, asked me a lot of questions about scheduling classes, picking a dorm and roommate and getting involved on campus,” she said.

Giardina said it’s important for first-generation students to have easy access to support services and resources on campus during their first year. “Often, there is no one else in the immediate family who understands college culture, so many students have questions like, What do I do when I get to campus? How do I register for classes? Where can I talk to a financial aid officer?,’” she said. “We have a lot of support programs in place to help students answer those questions.”

One of those programs is the TRIO Educational Support Program, which is supported by a grant from the Department of Education. The program supports a group of 215 first-generation students who are assigned to an advisor who supports them from their first to last year at Grand Valley.

Marnie Parris-Bingle, who was the first in her family to attend a four-year university, advises more than 100 students in the program. “It’s all about having someone to go to with questions,” she said. “And the questions vary at different points in their developmental process. Students in their first year tend to need more assistance and have more questions than students in their last year.”

Parris-Bingle also organizes programming that includes educational trips to museums, workshops that provide tips on managing money, and cultural trips to restaurants and plays.

“I think a lot of first-generation students choose Grand Valley because it feels like a small campus. I hear a lot that they’re instantly comfortable and they feel at home when they visit campus,” she said.

Giardina said a major factor for first-generation student success is getting involved with student organizations. “It help students understand what the college and university experience should be like and helps them find their niche so they can feel comfortable as they’re going through the experience,” said Giardina.

France jumped in during her first year at Grand Valley and became a member of You Beautiful Black Woman. “I remember going to Campus Life Night and knowing immediately that there was going to be a lot of opportunities to get involved,” she said.

France felt an instant connection when she attended her first YBBW meeting. “I came from an area where there is a lot of hostility and competition between peers and I saw the exact opposite with YBBW. They encouraged and supported me. It was just an eye-opening experience,” she said.

Four years later, France has cultivated countless friendships by being involved in student organizations such as NAACP, Psi Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity and the Grand Valley Public Relations Student Society of America. During her senior year, she helped establish the Righteous Movement, a faith-based student group.

“A lot of my success really goes back to getting involved with organizations on campus,” France said. “You come here, and you may be from Detroit or somewhere else, and you’ve left a completely different lifestyle behind. You have to build new friendships and for me, it’s the bond I build with people and campus that has shaped my college experience.”

Her parents are proud of her accomplishments. “To see her realize that she is independent and to see her transform is amazing,” said Loretta.

While France plans to move back to Detroit, she said she’ll always have a connection to Grand Valley. “I can’t go away and act as if Grand Valley has done nothing for me,” she said. “I’ll always be a Laker for a Lifetime. Grand Valley has given me so much.”
 

Page last modified May 9, 2013