University of Wisconsin sophomore Cassandra Guzman is the first of her family to attend college. Guzman said she felt anxious applying for schools without the help of a parent who had gone through the process before.
She’s not the only first-generation student who’s had these feelings, according to a study by the Journal of American College Health. In fact, their research shows first-generation students tend to experience more anxiety symptoms than their peers whose parents had gone to college.
To help mitigate these difficulties, UW offers multiple services designed to help first-generation students like Guzman, from programs offered by the Office of Financial Services to student organizations like First Generation Student Success.
Guzman benefitted especially from UW’s financial aid program, she said.
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She is one of over 12,000 students receiving financial aid at UW-Madison, according to a UW System memo.
Though it’s unclear how many of those students are first-generation, research shows that first-generation students are more likely to experience financial hardships, according to a University of Minnesota study.
For example, first-generation students are more likely to experience reduction of income among family members, unexpected increases in living expenses and loss of wages, according to the study.
To address such disparities, the UW Office of Financial Services offers many programs to help students like Gutzman pay for tuition, Greg Offerman, who is the associate director of Advising and Outreach at the UW Office of Financial Aid, said.
For instance, in 2017, UW created the Badger Promise program, which provides a period of free tuition for first-generation students who have transferred from any two-year UW branch campus, according to the Office of Student Financial Aid website.
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Though the Badger Promise has received much publicity, other programs may be able to help students even more, Offerman said.
“There are several other programs such as Bucky’s Tuition Promise, FASTrack and BANNER which can often be more beneficial for first-generation students,” Offerman said.
While many first-generation students faced financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic, Offerman’s team feels the pandemic ended up boosting their outreach efforts, he said.
By using Zoom workshops and updating their online presence, the outreach office has been able to reach more incoming and current first-generation students than ever before, Offerman said.
Thanks to help from the Office of Financial Services and advice from her high school guidance counselor, Guzman has her tuition fully covered, she said.
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Now, she can participate in extracurricular activities and campus life without being too stressed about the financial aspects of attending college, Guzman said.
“Having a single mom with three kids, UW’s financial aid was very helpful because college was always very much on the iffy side for me because I was unsure if I could afford it,” Guzman said.
But the security offered to her by the Office of Financial Services has boosted her confidence in that regard, she said. Now, she can focus on her career track and develop her resume, ensuring her employment for the future, she said.
Employment is another issue that affects first-generation college students more than their continuing-generation peers, according to a Hechinger Report article.
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After graduation, first-generation graduates earn less than their peers whose parents received degrees, the article said. This gap may be caused by the unique difficulties first-generation students face, according to the article.
Thanks to UW resources, Guzman feels more confident about her ability to get a job after graduation, she said.
“I’ve spoken quite a bit with my advisor to make sure I’m on the right track,” Guzman said. “I do feel like I will be able to pursue an internship in the future.”
On a more personal level, Guzman has been able to explore her cultural roots at UW, which she was unable to do in her small, predominantly white hometown, she said.
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Student organizations like First Generation Student Success ensure that students can connect to the resources at their disposal, like financial aid opportunities, according to the FGSS website.
In addition, the organization helps first-generation students connect with peers who have had similar college experiences, said the website.
This assures first-generation students that they are not alone, fighting the feelings of isolation that can be pervasive in this community, according to a FGSS YouTube video.