Initiatives Recognize First-Generation College Students

Ron Bilbao was born and raised in Miami to immigrant parents from Venezuela and Colombia. Now a senior at Carolina, he is the first person in his family to head down the path to college graduation.

“My father had to actually drop out of college when he was younger to go to work, but [my parents] knew the value of an education and wanted to pass that on to their kids,” Bilbao said.

About 20 percent of undergraduates who entered Carolina in fall 2009 are first-generation college students.

A Web site has been created, along with a student organization and graduation recognition initiatives, to mark the success of these students.

“Nationally, the number of first-generation college students attending universities is on the rise,” said Cynthia Demetriou, retention coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Education in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. “The goal of these new initiatives is to help retain first-generation students by further integrating them into the academic and social culture of the University. They contribute to the great diversity, cultural and intellectual life of our undergraduate community.”

The Web site features video interviews with first-generation students, including Bilbao and alumni; information about the new Carolina Firsts student organization; a student blog; a photo gallery; tips for success; and support services for students.

“We wanted to create one central location to share resources that are available to first-generation students,” Demetriou said.

An initiative beginning in May will recognize graduating first-generation college students with a pin that says “Carolina Firsts,” as well as a celebratory breakfast the Saturday before Commencement.

In April, for the second year, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions will hold an event for first-generation students who have been admitted for fall 2010. This event is made possible through a grant from the Triad Foundation.

Bilbao is a Carolina Covenant Scholar. Not all Covenant Scholars are first-generation college students, but many are. (Qualified low-income undergraduates who enter as Carolina Covenant Scholars can graduate debt-free through aid packages of grants and work study.)

Junior Sophia Nicholson of Mooresville is another first-generation college student featured in the new videos. Her mom grew up in Korea and was committed to education, but by the time she started high school, she had to drop out and start taking care of her family.

“She wanted me to experience life and to experience the world and to be successful,” Nicholson said. “The real joy of being at Carolina is appreciating how diverse it is. The opportunity is there. … You should seize it.”

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