First-Gen Students Find Support System at UTSC
Added Oct 13, 2011 by Jiyoon Ellie Kim
Many would be surprised to learn that UTSC alumnus Nerissa Cariño, an MPP candidate for the Pickering-Scarborough East riding in the recent provincial election, is a first-generation student.
“First-generation student” refers to students whose parents didn’t attend a post-secondary school in Canada. Research shows first-generation students often have unique needs and face greater challenges in their transition to university.
“First-year is an essential transition, especially for first-generation students,” said Reza Noori, the learning skills counsellor at UTSC. “A successful first-year makes them continue the rest of their post-secondary education.
Noori explained that students cannot always be proactive in a new environment.
“[Students are] intimidated, in a sense, by how big and differently structured the university is,” he said.
The First Generation Program (FGP) at UTSC, run by the Department of Student Life, stresses the significance of support for students beginning university.
The FGP supports about 44 per cent of all first-year students who have self-identified as first-generation students.
The project provides students with multiple kinds of one-on-one peer coach programs, while keeping close partnerships with academic departments and professors, in an effort to ease their transition from high school to university.
“All the small questions could be anybody’s questions, whether they’re first-generation or not,” said Noori. “But they are seemingly hesitant to ask questions because of the preconceived notions of being first-gen.”
“We always try to provide information even before they ask questions,” added Anitta Krishan, FGP’s coordinator.
Cariño faced the challenges of being a first-generation student and became a mother of four by the time she finished her undergraduate studies in 2007. She wrote one of her psychology exams at home through labour pains.
She also held on to a part-time job and could only study once her children went to sleep.
However, despite the challenges, Cariño continued to follow her passion inside and outside school.
“Education is a degree of equalizer, and post-secondary education especially,” Cariño explained. “After four years, I became a much different person.”
Once a varsity volleyball player, Cariño established a non-profit volleyball club for women in the community. She also started the V-Day movement, an annual social awareness event to stop violence against women, in co-operation with campus groups.
After graduation, Cariño wasn’t able to get a job related to her studies, but eventually ventured into politics.
While Cariño’s university life will differ from other first-generation students, she and many others are able to guide other students through their own challenges at university.
Cariño encouraged students to be ambitious, and shared how she stays motivated.
“Just set a goal. Make sure you want that,” said Cariño. “[For me it was] number one, my kids. They motivate me to be better every day. And humanity. Since I’m a huge social justice activist, I just love working for equality. It makes me run.”