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Those entering college for the first time may experience feelings of anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty. For first-generation students, the first individuals in their families to attend and complete college, the challenges of starting college are even greater. Many first-gen students endure substantial academic obstacles as a result of not coming from families with college experience or insight. First-gen students, especially those from working class families, often encounter deeper financial difficulties and social barriers than those with parents, siblings, or other relatives who hold college degrees. These obstacles ultimately make it more challenging for first-gen students to access and complete higher education.

To help combat the hardships first-gen students face, Suffolk University, located in downtown Boston, MA, established the Center for Academic Access and Opportunity (CAAO) in 2007. CAAO dedicates its efforts to assisting first-generation and underrepresented high school students successfully transition to college and graduate school.

The Center collaborates with other academic and administrative departments, including the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, the Division of Student Success, and the Center for Career Equity, Development & Success to provide robust services to those first in their families to pursue higher education.

“The message from all our offices is: You belong here,” says Abraham Peña-Talamantes, director of the CAAO. “These students aren’t imposters, they’re diamonds in the rough. When they get the opportunities and encouragement they need, they’re unstoppable.”

A first-gen student himself, Peña-Talamantes’ mission is to increase support for Suffolk’s first-gen population, which makes up nearly 33 percent of the University’s undergraduate community.

He remembers what it was like to be “that low-income student whose parents didn’t know how to fill out a FAFSA.” Now, Peña-Talamantes oversees 11 employees, all former first-gen students at the university, who now support current first-gen students.

Robust First-Gen Student Support

Suffolk devotes several resources, including a number of support programs across campus that are designed to prepare first-generation students for academic success. Here are just a few:

  • Connect the Dots, managed by The Division of Student Success, matches first-gen students with campus mentors and hosts workshops featuring topics like financial literacy, academic planning, and internship opportunities.
  • McNair Scholars, part of a federal TRIO program, offers a comprehensive PhD and graduate school prep program with the goal of increasing the number of first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.
  • Upward Bound, a federally-funded program, aims to increase higher education access and academic opportunities for first-generation and low-income students. Suffolk currently supports 65 high school students each year by preparing them for college.
  • The First-Generation Undergraduate Scholarship, eligible for first-year students, awards a $1,000 guaranteed and renewable scholarship for undergraduate study to first-generation students.
  • The First-Generation College Student Celebration is a week-long event designed to celebrate first-generation college students, staff, and faculty on campus. Initiated in 2017, the annual celebration features speakers and activities, such as donation drives, academic and success workshops, the sharing of personal stories, and alumni advice. Suffolk’s event coincides with the national First-Generation Celebration Day, held on November 8.

Obtaining National Recognition

The University’s notable advocacy for first-gen students has not gone unnoticed. In March 2021, Suffolk University was designated as a “First-Gen Forward” school by the Center for First-Generation Student Success. First-Gen Forward is the “nation’s first recognition program acknowledging higher education institutions for their commitment to first-generation student success.”

“It was evident that Suffolk is not only taking steps to serve first-generation students, but is prepared to make a long-term commitment and employ strategies that foster an environment of success for this important population,” said Dr. Sarah E. Whitley, assistant vice president of the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

The encouragement the University demonstrates toward its first-gen students is reflected by the students themselves—through their perseverance and resilience.

“Suffolk is a great university because of what our first-generation students contribute,” says Peña-Talamantes. “They have things they can teach us, and they enrich our community and everyone’s experiences.”

RELATED: Challenges for First-Generation College Students: A Firsthand Account and Expert Advice for Overcoming Them

Learn more about Suffolk University’s services and initiatives for first-gen students.