'First-generation' university students get extra help navigating campus life

Mount Allison University is helping students who are the first in their families to attend university with a new program that is designed to steer them away from potential obstacles to their success.

The initiative is called 1st Step, and it matches what are known as "first-generation students" with professors who were also the first in their families to study beyond high school.

It's estimated that about 15 per cent of Mount Allison's students are the first in their families to attend university.

Shelly Colette, the manager of academic support, designed the mentorship program to help these students navigate campus life.

"First-generation students do definitely face some obstacles that other students do not," she said.

"Some of those are financial. [They] tend to also be low-income students and so they have to balance part-time work with a full course load."

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Colette knows what the challenges are first hand. Her own father quit school at 17 to join the army.

During her undergraduate degree, Colette said she didn't even recognize she was at a disadvantage compared to her peers.

"It wasn't until I went to grad school that I noticed a difference among the students who had come from families where education had been a priority," she said.

'I didn't really belong'

Caitlin O'Connor, a fourth-year drama and psychology student, signed up for a mentor to help her with the transition from high school to university.

"There was a difference between how I was handling the stress of university life and how my peers were," she said. 

"I definitely felt unprepared and a bit like I didn't really belong."

O'Connor was paired up with Jennifer Tomes, a psychology professor.

Tomes said she knew from experience the difference some guidance could make.

"It might have made life a little easier if someone had been able to tell me I could go here for financial support, I could go here for academic advice … I was sort of stumbling around campus trying to find those services for myself," she said.

O'Connor and Tomes meet weekly to talk about everything from how classes are going to a joint research project the two have started together.

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O'Connor's research is looking at how these types of programs help first-generation students academically.

Aside from researching first-generation students, O'Connor has also become a peer mentor in the program.

"I got to meet incoming first-year students and talk to them about my own experiences and help them get acquainted with the university," she said. 

The program also gives first-generation students a place to meet called the First Gen Den, where they can talk about shared struggles and ways to cope.

Mount Allison's Colette said she hopes to expand the program to help first-generation students make the transition to the workforce or graduate school.