“[University] can be really nerve-racking, especially if your parents have never done it,” said Cynthia Dyck, a former first-generation student at Mt. A and the current Post-Grad Intern for the peer mentor program.
Mount Allison is adding a peer mentor program to its list of first-generation student supports. The peer mentor program is brand new for the 2021-2022 academic year and will work in tandem with the faculty mentor program, established in the fall of 2018. Students may choose to be paired with a faculty member, an upper-year student, or both. These programs aim to help students transition into university and to decide their next steps after graduation.
First-generation students, as defined by the Mt. A website, “are the first students in their families to attend university.” These students face unique struggles which other students may not, and face a higher drop-out rate than those with university-educated parents.
When Dyck recalled her experiences of entering university, “lost” and “overwhelmed” were her descriptors of choice. Some of her biggest challenges were “trying to figure out how to manage a schedule” and the fact that she was not aware of many academic supports at the time. “I didn’t even know they existed,” she said.
Drew Pettis, a fourth-year psychology student and the president of the First Gen Den, echoed these sentiments. Pettis also described feeling “overwhelmed” when entering university. Attempting to gain access to support programs, Pettis noted, was “taking away from time [spent] studying.”
Pettis also said that, for many first-generation students, these concerns are compounded by limited knowledge of student loans and course selection. Dyck referenced the “hidden curriculum of navigating university” which stretches even further than academics. For some, there may be “a lot of social cues they aren’t aware of going in.”
To help remedy this, the First Gen Den serves as the social wing of first-generation programming. According to Dyck, the Den’s goal is to “build a community with other students who identify as first-generation,” through social and academic events. She stressed that students can choose to attend as many or as few events as they please, and that none are obligatory.
This kind of community is important, according to Pettis, who commented on the importance of “knowing that… we have peers to associate with, but also…faculty who were in our shoes.” The newly-expanded programs “will allow [first-generation] students to come to a peer or faculty member with any struggles they’re having,” said Pettis.
Participation in first-generation programming has seen impressive growth since its inception in 2018. Pettis recalled there were just over 200 Mount Allison students who identified as first generation when the programs began; this number has since grown to over 400. This increase in participation was part of the impetus to create the new program, according to Pettis, who noted that student participants are outnumbering the first-generation faculty members
Pettis signalled an intention to keep the program’s growth rate high, saying that a perennial goal is “trying to get the club bigger and bigger.” Both Dyck and Pettis indicated that they had been unaware of first-generation programming early in their tenures at Mount Allison.
When asked for their definitions of a successful first-generation student, Dyck and Pettis both underscored the importance of simply making it through university. “Get a degree, make it through,” said Dyck. “[Get] that degree, [know] that it is hard to be a first-gen student,” said Pettis.
For more information on first-generation services, email Drew Pettis at [email protected], or the executive committee of the First Gen Den at [email protected].