While many other colleges and universities focus on hardships and deficits when discussing first-generation students, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s first-ever First-Gen Day aimed to celebrate and inspire those students.
Institutions across the country take part in National First-Generation Day every year to acknowledge the resilient community of students who were the first in their family to pursue a higher education degree. At UTHSC’s First-Gen Day event, students, faculty, and staff were invited to enjoy a free lunch and a presentation by Charles Snyder, PhD, MPH, EdM, associate vice chancellor of Student Success, who is a first-generation college student.
“When I look at my experiences as a first-gen, they’ve made me stronger. They’ve made me better at what I do. They’ve given me more confidence to tackle things with less fear,” Dr. Snyder said.
Dr. Snyder spoke about his experiences that led to him earning multiple degrees. As a child, he met a marine biologist who introduced him to the idea of going to college. He later worked at a fish harvesting company and in several roles in customer service. According to Dr. Snyder, those jobs not only taught him skills like making things work and working with people, but they also helped him realize he wanted more out of life. He knew he wanted to attend college, but he was lacking the resources.
“I didn’t have any advice,” Dr. Snyder said. “I didn’t have any background. I didn’t have anyone telling me how things work. I didn’t know what the FAFSA was, I didn’t know what academic advising was, I didn’t know what placement tests were.”
Dr. Snyder first attended the College of Eastern Utah (now Utah State University Eastern), where he was not academically successful. He then attended Diablo Valley College and met his first mentor, another first-generation college student. That mentor guided him through the financial aid process, helping him get a fresh start at another school, Columbia College in California. There he met another first-generation student – his future wife – who he says helped him organize his life and figure out how to be successful in college.
His college experience was what he called “uniquely first-gen,” because Dr. Snyder worked multiple jobs while in school. He worked as a coal mine firefighter, a Red Cross disaster responder, and a zoo curator. He also got involved in student organizations and TRiO Programs, including the McNair Scholars Program, which Dr. Snyder said propelled him toward getting a doctoral degree and working in higher education.
Dr. Snyder connected his success to being the first in his family to go to college. He said being a first-generation student instills strength and other values: enthusiasm, self-control, curiosity, perseverance, optimism, gratitude, and social intelligence.
“The science shows us first-gen students tend to be more enthusiastic about education. That’s really helpful because, if you look at participation in student organizations and campus life, first-gen students outperform. First-gen students tend to bring a life to the campus, and they really engage it,” Dr. Snyder said. “They also have an established history to be able to handle some adversity and to get by in less-than-ideal conditions in the college environment. That increases success.”
Dr. Snyder ended his talk by touting the accomplishments of every first-generation student. He said, by leveraging their experiences, they all have an opportunity to be role models, a support network for other students, and catalysts for change.
“If you’re at UTHSC as a first-gen, you’ve made huge, huge accomplishments. Not only are you a subset of first-gen students who have gotten a bachelor’s degree, but then you’re a subset that’s moved into professional or graduate training. That is a very, very small, elite group,” Dr. Snyder said. “That comes with a degree of responsibility to really change the landscape and make higher education and the professional setting a place where others who follow in your footsteps can easily transition in with fewer and fewer barriers.”