Gurney Chambers ’61 knows firsthand the obstacles and anxieties faced by first-generation college students. Chambers first laid eyes on the campus of Western Carolina College when his brother dropped him off in Cullowhee for the beginning of fall semester 1957. He recalls passing through what is now the back entrance of WCU’s campus and riding up the hill to his new home in Reynolds Residence Hall, where he unpacked his bags to begin his new life – a major step for a young man from a poverty-stricken background in Wilkes County.
With no tradition of higher education in his family, Chambers brought a load of psychological baggage to campus with his lack of self-confidence. “I felt I had to come in style because people would make fun of me, so before I left home I bought a new Samsonite suitcase and a green footlocker to put my things in,” he said.
Like many other first-generation students, Chambers was raised in a challenging economic situation that did not bode well for his educational endeavors. His father, who died at 29, was an alcoholic bootlegger who worked at a sawmill and had only completed second grade, while his mother, with an eighth-grade education, earned money by working on tobacco and apple farms. Still, his mother always put a high value on education and expected her six children to complete high school.
Despite his admitted lack of adequate academic preparation for college, and his social and academic anxieties, Chambers persevered. Later elected student body president, he received his bachelor’s degree and went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. Chambers returned to WCU as professor of education in 1967 and filled many roles over the years, including dean of the School of Education and Psychology (now the College of Education and Allied Professions). He retired as dean in 1998 after serving the university for more than 30 years, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2004.
Not all stories of first-generation students produce such a positive ending. Research indicates that 30 percent of freshmen entering college nationally each year are first-generation students, and 24 percent of the students are both first-generation and low-income. Statistics show that 89 percent of low-income, first-generation students will leave college without a degree within six years of enrollment; more than a quarter of those students will drop out after their first year.
Data collected from WCU’s new students each year do not reveal the percentage of incoming freshmen who can be called “first-generation,” but among the university’s 2009 freshmen who filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the standard form to receive financial aid, slightly fewer than 36 percent listed themselves as first-generation. The meaning of “first-generation college student” varies, but the federal government defines such a student as one who has parents with educational attainment of a high school diploma or less, although one or both parents might have taken college courses.
John Q. Hodges, former head of WCU’s social work department, has examined a wide range of general research into first-generation students. Hodges, a first-generation student who attended the University of Utah, said research indicates that such students receive less financial support from their families than other students, but they tend to benefit from more emotional support from their families than other students. “There’s a lot of family strength there,” Hodges said.
One first-generation college student who benefited from that family strength is WCU’s interim provost, Linda Seestedt-Stanford. “Growing up as a child of immigrant parents on Detroit’s east side, within my circle of family and friends there were no college graduates and very few people with high school diplomas,” Seestedt-Stanford said. “But my parents had a plan, and my siblings and I were programmed to go to college and to value education. Paying tuition meant sacrificing other things, like a new car, color TV and a vacation, but my parents never complained. They placed having an education as a priority over worldly things. Being educated was valued almost as much as family.”
After observing WCU for more than 40 years, Chambers said he believes several factors have resulted in WCU’s reputation as a first-generation student-friendly campus, including its historically low cost and a rural setting that students find “nonthreatening.” Also, Chambers said he and other first-generation students in Cullowhee have benefited from a faculty and administration that have looked favorably upon students in that situation. “Many of those faculty members and administrators, I suspect, were first-generation college students themselves and were attracted to work at Western Carolina because of that,” he said.
In past decades, lenient admissions standards also played a part in WCU’s reputation for being first-generation friendly, Chambers said, citing his own lack of college preparation in Wilkes County. “I had not taken the college preparatory curriculum, but they were willing to give me a chance based on rather weak preparation for college,” he said. However, that factor has disappeared in recent years as the university has raised its admission standards. “Some people may believe WCU is less friendly toward first-generation students now because of that, but I think it’s acceptable because back then we didn’t have the community college system,” Chambers said. “Now, students who aren’t as well-prepared can go to a community college to academically prove themselves, and then move on to a four-year institution.”
Beyond the statistics, there are the individual human stories of students trying to make it in college – those who don’t and those who beat the odds and earn their degrees. James Alan Goggins ’10 is one who did. Raised in a military family that moved frequently, Goggins graduated from high school in Harnett County and enrolled at a university in eastern North Carolina, but he immediately began to hit bumps on the road to a college degree. “I wasn’t focused or determined, and I didn’t do very well, and to top it off, my dad wound up being diagnosed with brain cancer at the end of my freshman year,” he said. “I transferred back home and started a community college program in nursing because I knew I needed to stay in school.”
Eventually, Goggins quit the community college program to help support his family when his father passed away. His college education remained in the doldrums until he watched his wife, Bessie Dietrich Goggins ’06 MA ’09, take her place among the graduating students during WCU’s commencement in December 2006. “I was sitting in the stands, waiting for Bessie’s name to be called and listening to the commencement speaker, who was also a graduating student, and he talked about his struggles as a blind college student,” Goggins said. “I was inspired, and told myself, ‘This is something I’ve wanted for a long time. If he can go out there and overcome his obstacles, then there’s nothing stopping me from overcoming mine.’ The next semester, I was enrolled at WCU.”
Goggins received his bachelor’s degree in environmental health in May after making his mark as a dean’s list student and talented undergraduate researcher. This fall, he is beginning his doctoral studies in biomedical sciences at Tulane University, where he has received a full scholarship. “To be a first-generation college student is, in my mind, the culmination of a lot of hard work and sacrifice – some by myself, but also the sacrifice my parents put into it and commitments they had to make to give me this opportunity,” Goggins said. “It means that I’m going to have a different lifestyle and more opportunities for jobs and life experiences than were available to my parents, and potentially, my kids will have better opportunities to go to college as well.”
Todd Murdock ’85 MAEd ’93 was a first-generation college student at WCU, and now his job involves counseling high school and middle school students who also have the potential to become first-generation college students.
Murdock is director of WCU’s Educational Talent Search Program, a federally funded initiative that identifies students in the seventh grade and follows them through high school graduation, providing academic, career and financial aid counseling while encouraging them to attend a postsecondary school of their choice. The students also have an opportunity to participate in Talent Search-sponsored outdoor and cultural programs throughout the year and, for high school students, to go on summer learning adventures to destinations such as Movntana and Washington, D.C.
Murdock and his staff of counselors work with about 900 students in 11 target schools in the counties of Cherokee, Graham, Jackson and Swain, and in the Qualla Boundary, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Federal mandates stipulate that two-thirds of the students enrolled in Talent Search meet low-income criteria and also be in a “first-generation” situation; 75 percent of the students currently enrolled fit both categories.
Murdock said he can identify with the doubts and problems faced by those who are the first in the family to go to college – even when it comes to the basic function of registering for classes. “When I came to WCU for freshman orientation, I was having doubts about whether I could handle the academics, and I was thinking about taking less than a 15-hour load,” he said. “But my best friend’s father, who brought us to campus, counseled me and told me sternly, ‘You will be able to do this.’ That gave me the boost I needed. There are pivotal points in everyone’s young adult life, and that was one of those for me. If it had not been for him, I might not have graduated in four years.”
On a national basis, only about 28 percent of young people in a first-generation situation go to college, and only 11 percent of those students persevere and obtain a college degree. On the other hand, about 75 percent of the first-generation students enrolled in WCU’s Talent Search Program enroll in a community college or university. In a typical year, 100 to 120 Talent Search students will graduate from high school. About half of them enroll in four-year colleges, and about half of that group choose WCU.
Students from low-income, first-generation situations usually drop out of college for one of two reasons – because they are in debt or because they are not able to adjust to college on a social basis – and so the financial aid and college planning advice provided by Talent Search is critical, Murdock said.
For those students who might have trouble dealing with the social aspects of college, the free summer adventure and learning treks sponsored by Talent Search can be a big plus. Students have experienced hiking, cycling and paddling adventures along the path of Lewis and Clark to commemorate the bicentennial of those explorers’ famous journey across the West; they have been on a cultural and service trip to two Native American reservations in Montana; and this summer, a dozen students bicycled from Washington to Pittsburgh while visiting numerous historic sites, including landmarks of the Underground Railroad.
“The trips provide our kids with the experience of being engaged with a group,” Murdock said. “There’s no place to hide, and everyone gets the change to be ‘leader of the day.’ When the students go on these trips and have a positive experience, it means they’re more likely to be engaged socially in college.”