Holiday Blues for Students

Your students may be suffering more than you know.

Thanksgiving is upon us, and Channukah and Christmas are around the corner. This time is usually a time of rest for students. However, some are facing going home with dread.

Today one of those students told me how they thought about jumping off of the top of a parking garage. As the fall semester comes to a close many students, like this one, are anxious about going home and telling their families that they are failing classes. Rather than face the disappointment, ridicule, or wrath of family and friends, some students would rather end their lives.

This is the time when families start asking students about their classes and school life. What many families don’t realize is that the how, when, and why these questions are asked impact their student psychologically.

Consider asking your student how they are doing in private rather than at the family dinner table. When these questions are asked in front of others it can feel as though the student is on display rather than truly being cared for. What’s worse is if the student isn’t performing well then they don’t have any room to tell the whole truth without facing the embarrassment of failing in front of family and friends.

Pull your student aside well before the hullabaloo of the holidays so that you can have an honest one-on-one with them. If the student is in their first year then do not necessarily panic if their grades are not where you think they should be. Nearly everyone has an adjustment period. Listening to your student talk through what they are going through, both negative and positive, can help them cope with their challenges, and follow through with the last few weeks of the semester to be as successful as they can be.

Students’ mental health can be especially fragile around the holidays as they are met with the hopes and expectations of loved ones. How loved ones respond can determine if students are able to cope well or feel as though they have no way out.

Finally, if a student is suicidal there are people that can help. Most schools have a helpline students can call 24 hours a day. Counseling staffpersons are not off during break, and at least one person will be in the office to answer questions about how to get help for your student even at home. In addition, if you, or anyone else needs help immediately, then please call the National Suicide Hotline at 800.273.8255.


Put Your Own Mask On First

This morning I attended a wonderful ceremony for students graduating from a summer program intended to develop their interest in health care careers. Students from a variety of universities came together to take courses in math, statistics, physics, and chemistry. However, the end of the ceremony left me most saddened after the student speaker delivered his remarks.

The student who closed the ceremony was well liked, affable, and thoughtful. He had finished in the top five of the class. At the very end of his speech he recognized one of his classmates who had aided him with his studies, and often stayed up late at night helping him understand the material. She did not finish in the top five.

I have seen this phenomenon over and over again. Community involvement has been so ingrained into black women’s lives that we often sacrifice ourselves in order to be sure we all get ahead. Yet, as the flight attendants tell you before takeoff on an airplane, you must put your mask on first before you can assist someone else. You must take care of your own health and well-being before being there for others.

Self-care has become a buzzword in many spaces, but self-care does not always have to mean luxurious bubble baths. Self-care can also mean prepping for your own exams alone until you feel sufficiently prepared to do well.

I’m sure the young lady will do well as she pursues her medical dreams, but I hope she also recognizes that she has to take the time out to help herself first. Keeping that in mind will ensure she is truly lifting as she climbs and not being stepped past.

Community in Higher Education

Primary and secondary education make it a point to try to involve parents in the education process. Just today someone was telling a story about how her child receives checklists from school so that parents know what homework the student should be completing over the week. Schools regularly host parent-teacher conferences. Debates around the merits of a “neighborhood school” versus busing or other means of integration still rage.

Not so much in higher education. It’s as though higher education expects 17-18 year olds to be full formed adults even though part of what we do is shape young people into citizens; at least by the old education is a “public good” standards. We are supposed to know that they aren’t fully formed adults. Yet, why do we cut off their parents abruptly?

With regard to first generation and low-income students cutting off family can be especially traumatic. Research shows that community can be especially important for minoritized students, and first generation and low-income students are similar. When you have had to come together as a community to find ways to defeat racism, or survive fiscally then it can become unfathomable to break from the community when one goes to school. And why should someone do so? The way higher education speaks about access often seems like implicitly marginalized students should reject their home communities and join this “better” way of doing things. The conversation implies that socialization into the academy requires putting away  all that came before.

If we are going to meet the access and completion agendas we have to find better ways to incorporate communities into higher education. It is perfectly fine to expose students to new ideas. It is not okay to for educators to bury their heads in the sand and not try to find ways to incorporate students’ culture and home communities into the college going culture and process. There are many skills that marginalized students bring with them that do not fit neatly into existing frameworks, but those skills may be what leads to new ways of thinking, not only in the classroom, but in the workplace.

Building college going cultures requires incorporating whole families so that they understand what their young person is heading off to do, and thus, the family can support it. Building family into the culture also may save dollars because college going programming may not have to be repeated with younger siblings if parents/guardians also learn the process.

At its heart education is a community process and for it to be effective beyond one person then the community has to be involved from start to finish.


Today we’re proud of our student Katiera Rutledge! Katiera is a student we’ve worked with over the past two years who was interested in transferring from her community college to the University of Maryland at College Park. Her story was featured here.

Katiera was originally denied admission, but after some encouragement from us, called the Admissions Office to find out how to become a stronger application. At that point the Admissions Office discovered that her file had simply been misfiled! Katiera had earned admission to her dream school after all.

This student’s story tells us a few things about the transfer process.

1) It can sometimes be scary. 

Katiera was used to the community college setting, and, even though she wanted to transfer, was a bit reluctant to apply to the larger, flagship school. We worked to demonstrate just how prepared, and ready she truly is, to allay the “I’m not good enough” fears.

2) Follow up can make all the distance.

Katiera did not call the university ranting, but she did ask questions regarding her application, and what she could do to make it stronger. Not all universities are open to such calls, but the lesson here is to let them tell you no rather than assuming the answer without speaking to someone first.

3) Seek outside help. 

Katiera has worked with us over the two years to bridge the gap between her community college and her dream school. Guidance counselors, and university officials are great places to start looking for information about college or transfer, but don’t discount the web, and books! There are a wealth of people in the world who want to see students succeed, and are willing to answer questions. This site is one of those places as well.

Year in Review

Our First Scholars

It’s been a super busy year for First Generation University. After so many of you generously gave to our scholarship efforts this year we raised the most money in the four year history of fundraising. Those funds went to a wonderful student from Connecticut, and really made a difference in her being able to stay in school! Thank you again.

This year also marked the beginning of our first program. It’s been a dream to bring the academy to the community, and a partnership with the anti-poverty organization Martha’s Table made that dream come true. I met the director of the teen program, Timothy Jones at the Words, Beats, and Life annual Teach-In where he gave a presentation on hip-hop education. Timothy is a brilliant educator I’d been conversing with online, and when we realized our missions aligned a partnership was born.

In the fall I started the College Pro program on Thursdays. The first half of the academic year we worked with two seniors applying to college. Choosing which colleges to apply to, and working out fee waivers, letters of recommendation and the FAFSA were some of our biggest challenges. In the spring we focused on preparing for the first year in college and dealt with everything from study habits to dating and values.

We’re extremely proud of our two students Jamika Acevedo and Tariq Broadnax. Jamika is headed to Temple University to study biochemistry. Even more impressive is the fact that she earned over 30 thousand dollars in scholarships! Jamika’s advice is to apply for every and any scholarship you qualify for because you never know what may happen. Tariq is headed to the University of Oklahoma to study engineering. Tariq attends Benjamin Banneker Academic High School and decided to apply to the special program Banneker has with OU. Not only does OU provide an opportunity to study engineering, but is a chance for Tariq to get out and experience living in a different part of the country, which he’s very excited about.

We look forward to continuing our work this year, and hope you’ll continue to support what we do.



It’s Always Okay to Seek Mental Health Help

Need help? Speak up. Please.

The 2010-2011 academic year was an especially trying one.  Students from all of my advising groups dealt with some serious mental health issues that affected their self esteem, grades, and unfortunately, in one case, one student nearly harmed himself.  I am proud of each and every student who came to see me even though their troubles eventually took an emotional toll on my own mental health.

Students there are many things that may cause you to need professional counseling.  Some students have a chemical imbalance that leaves them struggling against mental illness all of their lives.  Other students experience traumatizing events such as sexual assault and need to speak to both a counselor and the police.  Yet other students are simply experiencing intense pressure to succeed and need to learn coping mechanisms to handle their responsibilities.  All of these are legitimate reasons to reach out to someone on campus whether that be a professor you trust, an academic advisor, or you go directly to your counseling center.  Many of us aren’t trained professionals, but we know how to reach the people who are, and we know how to reach them quickly.

There is still a stigma against those who suffer from depression or other mental health problems, but it is still important to get help when you need it.  I am happy to report that all of students have gone on to seek therapy and finished the semester strong.

Exceptions to the Rule(s)

One thing first generation students often do not know is that yes, you can request exceptions to a variety of rules and regulations at your college.

There's always an exception

One thing first generation students often do not know is that yes, you can request exceptions to a variety of rules and regulations at your college.  Sometimes you can get extensions for papers, or ask for even larger exceptions such as an administrative withdrawal from your college with a refund.  Whatever it is that you think you need, it doesn’t hurt to find someone and ask if its possible.  How you go about doing that is another matter.

In my role as an academic advisor, I meet belligerent students often.  Students who feel they deserve an exception, and, thus treat everyone they come into contact with badly when they are told no, or told that they must fulfill an obligation before being considered.

There is an old saying that states: “you can get more flies with honey than vinegar.”  This saying means that you can get more when you ask nicely than when you do not.  In college this is absolutely true.  Sometimes getting what you want or need is simply a matter of getting introduced to the right person, or having the right person advocate on your behalf.

Once you have determined that you have a legitimate request, speak up and ask for your exception.  If you’re courteous, which includes your verbal, non-verbal, and written communication someone will usually work above and beyond their duty to help.

Ask for help

Entering college can be a scary time. Making new friends, maintaining your studies, and being on your own can present challenges that even the most mature and responsible student has difficulty mastering.

Don't go it alone

Entering college can be a scary time.  For many of you it may be the first time you are away from home for a significant amount of time.  For others you may be meeting people who are nothing like you, and have a completely different set of values for the first time.  Making new friends, maintaining your studies, and being on your own can present challenges that even the most mature and responsible student has difficulty mastering.

Most strong universities have a counseling center students can visit if they feel overwhelmed by things.  A misconception is that counseling is for people with major problems, but, as many people can tell you, major problems do not get that way overnight.  They start with small things such as text anxiety, roommate troubles, and general loneliness.  There is absolutely no shame in scheduling an initial appointment to talk out some of the things that are swirling in your head.  After your first visit you can make a decision on whether or not you want to continue.  If you don’t know where your counseling center is, or you do not have one on your campus chat with your RA or another student affairs professional or advisor that you trust.  These people are not just your campus spirit squad.  They are also there to assist you in finding the resources you need to be successful in college.

If everything has become overwhelming to the point of becoming an emotional emergency some campuses even have a 24/7 talk line to help you work through the immediate need.  Sometimes this number is in your student handbook, on campus billboards, and possibly the counseling center website.

The  best thing you can do to be successful in college is take care of yourself. You’re not going to be productive in your studies if you are stuck focusing on some of the very real challenges that can be a part of the college experience.  There is not point in remaining stuck if you don’t have to.  Never be too proud to ask for help.

I was a first genner & didn’t even know it…

Not until 10 years after graduating with my Bachelor’s Degree did I finally learn I was a first generation student and exactly how that had effected me. If I knew then what I know now….well I didn’t, but hopefully you can learn from my story.

A couple of months ago, I was sitting in my first class towards my Master’s Degree in Education, when my professor asked, “Who here was a first generation student?” My mind did a quick scan, and I raised my hand. But until that moment, I never thought about the fact that I was a first generation student, or how that had possibly affected me along my journey.

Baby Renee in South Africa

In 1978, my mom and dad packed my sister and I up and we made the trip from our place of origin, Cape Town, South Africa, to what I would know as my childhood home, Dunedin, Fl. For me the transition was seemingly seamless, though to a 6 month old, most things are! My parents worked extremely hard to make sure we had the necessities. They also did the obligatory checks to make sure we were doing our homework, once we got to that age.

Then high school rolled around. The PSATs were coming up, and from everything I read, it was a Practice SAT, so why study or work hard at it….it was practice! I didn’t understand why my friends were staying home to study for it or even getting tutors to help them. Months after I took the test (of which I am not even sure I read the questions), my friends started hearing that they had won scholarships and that they were National Merit Scholars. But wait! I didn’t see an application for National Merit Scholars; I didn’t get a form to fill out for other scholarships. That is when I realized that I had missed the boat. The PSATs may have been a practice test, but they were also the qualifying exam in order to access a large chunk of these scholarships. But how was I supposed to know that? We had never been through this before, and my parents knew less about the PSATs than I had. That was strike one for this first generation student.

After the PSAT debacle, I was not about to miss the boat on college admissions. I was going to college no matter what. But just how that actually happens is another story. My friends were all talking about college applications and early admissions. Fine, that is what I would do to. I was a diehard fan of the Florida State Seminoles, so that is where I would apply. I was extremely interested in the Journalism program at the University of South Carolina as well, but applying out of state? Without having any idea what the first step would be to apply out of state, that plan was stopped before it even started. So FSU it was! I completed the early application, mailed it in, and on my birthday of my senior year, October 25, 1994, I received my college acceptance letter. Thank goodness, because if I had been rejected, I hadn’t even thought about how to apply anywhere else! I called my parents at work, and they were very excited for me, and I continued my senior year.

Fast forward back to that Master’s Course I started off talking about. In this class, we talked a lot about orientation and advisors, two things I knew nothing about. Until I started volunteering post-graduation, orientation was a myth to me. I never knew about it, and never attended it. The same thing goes for having an advisor in college. I received a letter my junior year of college saying I needed to declare a major or I would not graduate. I looked at the school catalog, and realized I had completed all of the work needed for a degree in English/Creative Writing. So I declared that as my major. No meeting with an advisor, no calls home, no planning or thought of what it would do for my future, just a logical, easy decision. Done.

Renee and her parents
Renee and her parents

Although my parents did not know about the college experience in order to guide me, they had set a great example for me when it came to work ethic. I started working in Marketing my freshman year of college, and within a week of moving back home, I was offered a middle-management position with an experiential marketing agency. Luckily, the work ethic I had as an example from my parents, is what really benefitted me more than my actual college education.

Renee and frienda at graduation
Renee and her sorority sisters at graduation

Because my family and I did not know about the processes, the “system”, the protocols and the ways of the American university system, I did not take full (or even partial) advantage of my collegiate experience. If I had it to do over again, you better believe I would be one of those students that constantly checks in with my advisor, with financial services, with student activities, with all of it. From my experiences, my one bit of advice to first generation college students would be to ask. Ask your school what you should be taking advantage of. Ask your advisor if you are on the correct path. Ask career services what you should be doing to make yourself marketable. Ask student activities what opportunities are available. And take advantage of every second you are in school. This is the one opportunity in your life where you will not be penalized for not having experience. This is the last time in your life where you are given the resources to gain that experience, no questions asked! Do not let the unknown dictate your college career. Your family may not have the knowledge to help guide you through your college years, but your college does. Speak up for yourself, ask the questions, seize the opportunities!

Renee Hirschberg is originally from Cape Town, S. Africa, and was raised in Dunedin, FL. Renee received her B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Florida State University. After 13 years in the field if Event Marketing, part of which was spent owning her own agency, Renee has made the switch to Higher Education. She currently works for Boston University’s Executive MBA program while working on her Masters’ Degree in Higher Education Administration, also at BU. In her space time, Renee consults on Social Media for local businesses, blogs, and enjoys being outdoors. She just discovered a love of running…but we will see how long that last…