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Torchlight stories: Flagler student, alums and staff work to help first-generation college students

May 12, 2020
by Laura J. Hampton

When Airea Johnson struts across the stage in black cap and gown draped with crimson hood in May 2021, she will be the first person in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree. She is, in fact, the first person in her family to attend college.

Airea Johnson holds a torch over her head in one hand and a laptop in the other.

Before arriving on the Flagler College campus, Johnson had never heard the term first-generation student, but being one, she was invited to a First-Generation Workshop during the first few weeks of school.

Led by Flagler alumna Jeanette Vigliotti, class of 2011, the gathering in the spring 2018 was the first of its kind for the college.

“I was so moved I emailed Jeanette and told her she was awesome,” Johnson said. “We got to talking, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Through the first-generation event and her friendship with Vigliotti, Johnson began to learn how special it is to be a first-generation college student, but she also learned it has some pitfalls.

Jill Dawson, Senior Director of the Center for Advising and the Core Experience, said first-generation college students start out at a disadvantage and face continuous challenges from acceptance through graduation.

Many of these students do not even consider college because it was not a part of the daily conversation, Dawson said.  

“If your parents went to college, it’s probably talked about in the home,” she said. “Parents who went to college are also much more adept at navigating the system and understanding what you have to do to apply to college.”

Statistically, first-generation students are more likely to drop out. According to a study by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, first-gen students are more than twice as likely to leave school within three years than students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree.

Like most 18-year-olds, first-gen students are likely to turn to their parents for help. However, if a first-gen student is having trouble navigating college and their parents don’t understand the role of tutoring services, counseling services or resident advisers, they cannot help the student navigate the process. Sometimes, unfortunately, the parent will recommend the student leave school.

Many first-generation students don’t know how to deal with the “imposter syndrome” – when students feel like they don’t belong in college or they don’t have a right to be there. Though all students can have imposter syndrome, Dawson said first-gen students have it more often.

When Vigliotti entered the Ph.D. program at Virginia Commonwealth University, she and her cohorts, who also happened to be first-gen student, were stumbling through their first course of their first semester. Frustrated, they had an open conversation about not feeling prepared for where they were, which led to a discussion about not having familial help to navigate higher education.

“It was a very liberating moment to know that other people also felt like they were imposters in this environment,” Vigliotti said.

Vigliotti wanted to find a way at Flagler to engage the first-gen student population. Since spring 2018, freshman who identify as first-generation college students attend a special event during their first semester where they network with other first-gen students (both student and faculty) and learn about the resources available on campus.

Dawson said educating the students about available resources is crucial. 

Now aware of this subcategory of students and proud to identify with it, Johnson is following in the footsteps of Vigliotti, whom she considers a mentor. In her desire to work with first-gen students, Johnson created the oral history blog “Torchlight Stories: Conversations with First Gen Students.”

For the blog, Johnson interviews students (and some faculty) who discuss their journey to an institute of higher learning, the pressure they feel to succeed and the determination that drives their quest for a bachelor’s degree.

As for Johnson’s story, the rest is yet unwritten.

Though very open about growing up in poverty in rural Alabama and rebelling at age 15 — against her mother’s wishes, she left home and moved to Florida to live with an aunt — the now 20-year-old is smart, ambitious and upbeat, despite the odds against her as a first-gen student.

“I’m here, and I’m thriving and it’s great,” she said.

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