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First generation college students reflect on challenges, joys of trailblazing

Alana Burke and Samantha Engster
Michigan Radio
Alana Burke and Samantha Engster

Universities are beginning to pay more attention to first-generation students, or those of whom are the first in their families to obtain a higher education degree.

But there’s still not a lot of information out there showing how these students fare at four-year colleges specifically. So, we thought we’d talk to a couple of them.

Samantha Engster is a senior at Central Michigan University, and Alana Burke is a freshman at the University of Michigan.

Engster says that she was “nervous” and “didn’t know what to expect” when she first arrived on campus. But her new friends, particularly a fellow first-generation student, played a key role in helping her figure out her academic path.

“He helped me decide what I wanted to do, which was biology, and I ended up just talking to people and through that, I found out what my passion was and how to get to where I wanted to go,” Engster said. 

Burke says that the workload along with the social aspects of university life were nerve wracking at first.

“But I’m part of a scholarship program called the Kessler Scholarship, and it’s a group of 36 other first-generation students who are freshmen," Burke said. "And that’s been a great support group, I can talk to the other students and get advice on issues I’m having, or even advisors within the program help me a lot with discussing possible majors and how to prepare for work I’m doing in my classes.”

Burke and Engster advise first-generation college students not to be afraid of asking questions, and to take advantage of all of the resources that universities have available. But both say their respective universities need to do more to support first-generation students on campus and to facilitate an environment that lets them know they’re not alone.

“I didn’t expect to see so many first-gen students on campus," Burke said. "Knowing that there were a lot made me feel a little better because I knew I wasn’t just by myself, I wasn’t the only one going through these struggles.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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