Empowering Dreams: Event Celebrates Jefferson’s First-Generation Students

The University aims to foster community, resources and recognition.

About 56% of U.S. college students are first-generation, meaning their parents didn’t complete four-year degrees. First-generation college students often face unique academic and financial challenges—on average, they see lower graduation rates and post-graduation salaries and higher amounts of student debt than their continuing-generation peers.

“On top of the disparities first-generation students face, many of them also lack the guidance they need to navigate undergraduate admissions, financial aid, coursework and the pressure that comes with being a college student,” says Farai Simoyi, Jefferson’s fashion design program director.

Faculty like Simoyi, a first-generation student herself, recognize these challenges and aim to create programming that supports the University’s first-generation students. On Nov. 9, Jefferson hosted the First-Generation Celebration Luncheon—the inaugural campus-wide event for first-generation students.

Textile design student Skylar Strouss speaking
First-generation student Skylar Strouss thanked the textile design faculty and fellow students for their support. (Photos by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services)

Jefferson organized the lunch to allow first-generation students to connect, feel a sense of belonging and celebrate their achievements together, Simoyi says. “We hope to foster a sense of community and friendship among our first-generation student population. Our goal is to provide resources and a supportive network to help them navigate the college experience.”

Martha Anez, associate director of the interior design and interior architecture programs—and a first-generation student, worked with Simoyi on the event.

“Celebrating our first-generation students allows us to acknowledge their diversity, their contribution to our educational environment and their value as role models in their communities,” Anez says. “It can be a difficult and isolating experience being a first-generation college student, and sometimes, our students are unaware of the strengths and assets they bring to our campus.”

Among those celebrated at the event was textile design student Skylar Strouss, who recently earned second place in the International Textile Alliance’s Virginia Jackson Design Competition.

Celebrating our first-generation students allows us to acknowledge their diversity, their contribution to our educational environment and their value as role models in their communities. –Martha Anez

“I’ve received so much support from my peers in the textile studio and my professors, who pushed me to submit my work for the competition,” Strouss says. “As a first-generation student and foster youth, I’m a part of an extremely small percentage of the college population. Reminding myself that I’m in that minority pushes me to keep working hard.”

Other students at the luncheon shared similar sentiments. “Being a first-generation student, you will constantly face obstacles in your professional and personal journey,” says fashion design student Omar Gomez-Herrera.

However, Gomez-Herrera feels grateful for this experience and the intentional effort of bringing first-generation students together. “The luncheon was a nice reminder that we’re not alone and there are resources available for us. Sometimes just knowing there are people who will support you and be there for you when you face those hurdles is all the encouragement you need.”

Attendees at the first-gen lunch
Dozens of students and faculty members attended the First-Generation Celebration Luncheon on Nov. 9 in the Kanbar Performance Space. More events will be planned for the future.

Business management student Deyonna Moore says this event allowed her to meet new people who share her experience and difficulties as well as help others overcome challenges.

“To me, being first-generation is an honor and a privilege,” Moore says, “and I’m happy to celebrate that.”

For Simoyi, the luncheon is just the start; she hopes to make specialized programming like this university wide.

“The Dean of Students Office has resources our first-generation students can take advantage of just like all of our students,” she says. “But our long-term goal is to develop a centralized infrastructure that focuses specifically on first-generation student needs, like helping them transition into college life, find financial aid and scholarship opportunities and, most importantly, ease the pressures of being the first in their family to have this experience.”

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