Shannon West / Gavel Media

Learning to Learn Eases the First Generation Student Transition

When Parents’ Weekend rolls around each September, campus suddenly overflows with doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and managers. Often driving nice cars and wearing name-brand clothing, the successful parents gather to visit their children who are pursuing their own college educations and future successes.

In an elite environment like this, it is often easy to forget that not every student comes from a household with two college-educated parents.

Dan Bunch, however, is acutely aware of this population of students. Bunch is the director of the Learning to Learn (LTL) office, an institution dedicated to helping first generation students adjust to, thrive in, and graduate from Boston College.

The challenges that face first generation college students are unique, and can be difficult to navigate in the transition to an elite university like BC.

“Not having as much information about the college experience as other students,” according to Bunch, is the number one challenge facing these first generation students.

“They have experienced success like all other students,” he continues, but they still worry about whether or not they will fit in in this community, and if they can compete at this level. The transition to college can be daunting to any student, but especially so for first generation students who often have far less information about the experience and challenges they will be facing.

LTL tries to fill this information gap by intervening early, reaching out to all first generation students prior to their freshman year to invite them to a two week long summer program called the College Transition Program (CTP). This is a way for students to get acclimated before the stress of real college life sets in, and provides them with important information about the university and the resources that are available to them.

When asked about his mission, and the mission of the LTL office, Bunch was very clear.

“I want to make sure that students are comfortable here,” Bunch says. As a first generation college student himself, he is familiar with some of the challenges associated with being the first in his family to pursue a higher level education. He recalls his own concentrated efforts to blend in when he came to BC, like being nervous to ask questions in class because he didn’t want to call too much attention to himself. He works to ease this nervousness in incoming students to ensure that they don’t feel isolated and out of place in this new and competitive environment.

“Everybody here wants to fit in,” he states simply. Wanting to fit in in an unfamiliar environment is natural for any incoming college student. When it comes to first generation students, however, these efforts to blend in can be problematic when they become unwilling to advocate for themselves, ask questions, and fight to have their needs met because they are afraid it will cause them to stand out too much.

To combat these fears, the second part of the LTL office’s job is to teach students to advocate for themselves. Bunch says that many students, especially first generation students, don’t necessarily feel empowered to advocate for themselves when they need something. LTL seeks to teach them how to get their unique needs met, and what resources BC has to offer that they can take advantage of.

Luckily for BC’s community of first generation students, there are a variety of resources available to them.

“BC is in the top tier of institutions that focus on first gen. I think they do a very good job,” Bunch says of the programs available to these students. “They pay attention to their students in ways that other institutions don’t.”

Aside from the Learning to Learn office, many first generation students are part of the Montserrat Coalition. The Montserrat Coalition focuses on students with the highest financial need, as determined by family income. The services of the Coalition include, but aren’t limited to, helping students pay for books, helping them pay for their tickets abroad, running coat drives, and providing emergency travel funds if something urgent comes up at home.

To be very clear, first generation and low income are not the same thing. There are first generation students who are not low income, and low income students who are not first generation. Bunch is clear that to be a first generation student only means that your parents did not go to college.

“First gen is a very diverse group of folks,” Bunch says in response to the “narrow perception” that many people have of first generation students. The group is diverse in a multitude of aspects, including race, country of origin, and income.

There is, however, some overlap between the low income and first generation populations. Bunch refers to being low income first generation as a “double whammy,” because these students face more challenges than if they were only first generation.

Fortunately, there are other resources available to help combat the unique challenges for these students. In addition to Montserrat, LTL points students to other opportunities that would have been financially out of reach otherwise.

The McNair Scholars Program, for instance, is a national program that provides mentorship and research opportunities to low income, first generation students in preparation for graduate school. The LTL office facilitates this program here at BC. There are also Advanced Study Grants available to all students (not just first generation or low income), to pursue their own individual research. Finally, the McGillycuddy-Logue Center offers travel grants based on financial need to students who are looking to go abroad but lack the funds to do so.

“I want them to know about all the resources BC has to offer. Not all the students know, or particularly seek out, all the resources that BC has,” Bunch says of his mission in the LTL office.

LTL helps students to maximize their experience here at BC by making them aware of the abundant resources the university has to offer. The message of these programs is clear: You do not have to be from a wealthy or college-educated background to thrive here at Boston College.