College is a big step for anyone to take in their lives. In high school, we constantly hear “go to college” or “this will prepare you for college,” but college isn’t always in everyone’s plan. For people who don’t have parents who attended college, it can seem that much more out of reach. However, a lot of these students choose to defy the odds and become a first generation college student and join the 56% of nationwide first-gen students. In April of 2021, ECU was named a First-Gen Forward institution due to the variety of resources for our community of first-gen students.
Senior social work major, Shyla Fitzhugh, is a first generation student here at ECU. Being the first in your family to attend college is a huge deal, and there are a lot of meanings and obstacles to overcome in going to college. “To me, being a first generation college student means that I just raised the bar that much higher for my younger siblings and family generations to come. It means that I am reaching my dream and accomplishing my goals,” Fitzhugh said. She also talked about the obstacles she had to overcome to get to where she is now, such as completing applications, looking for scholarships and working through forms she didn’t understand. Additionally, she had to look for mentors to help her on her journey through college. “I also had to overcome leaving home and my family. Even though I am only an hour away, it was an adjustment entering school,” Fitzhugh added.
Getting involved on campus is a great way to get used to the new normal of being in college, and can bring a great sense of pride. Fitzhugh said she is the most proud of her involvement on campus and her leadership. She is a part of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority on campus and serves as the Vice President. She is also a member of ECU Ambassadors, a Pirate Navigator, and works with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Her involvement on campus has given her opportunities to guide students much like herself in adjusting and succeeding in college.
The COVID-19 pandemic shook up everyone’s plans, but it had a little bit of a different impact on first-generation students. Enrollment rates fell for various reasons, but all of the necessary changes for COVID safety discouraged a lot of people. “It was discouraging having to take classes online and not being able to be on campus for events,” Fitzhugh said. She also said it was hard not to be with her friends around campus. Oftentimes, people coming into college struggle with feeling disconnected from their families. With most students already at least a year into their college experience, it was normal to feel a new disconnect, this time from their newfound friends.
The culmination of the college experience all comes together at graduation, which is a significant celebration for any college student. “Graduation day in the spring will definitely be one of the best days of my life!” Fitzhugh said. This celebration is a much bigger deal for first-generation students, as only about 27% of first-gens graduate within four years of their initial enrollment (resilienteducator.com). “Graduating college means that I did what I was supposed to do. I set goals for myself and did everything possible to achieve them. It means that I beat the odds and statistics against me. It means that I kept my promise to my grandfather, who is no longer with us,” Fitzhugh added. Living up to our expectations in college is a big deal, and it’s even sweeter when we make the people we love proud in the process.
Going off to college is hard for anyone, but it is harder for students who don’t have someone to help them through all of the new things they are experiencing. “It’s more like my family learning while I’m learning,” Fitzhugh said. She had some advice to first-gens not to give up. She notes that the struggle and uncertainty are only temporary, especially when you find a school that is a perfect match for you the same way that ECU is her perfect match! “ECU has given me everything I’ve ever needed as a first-gen from Pirate Academic Success Center tutoring, resources in Joyner Library, amazing faculty in the College of Health and Human Performance and the various Student Affairs offices helping me along the way,” Fitzhugh said. ECU has over 500 student organizations, several club sports and a great community of students around campus to get involved with. Finding your crowd is a great way to feel like a part of something on campus and motivate you to keep pushing forward.
College is a significant part of any student’s academic career. It can be really tough, and some of us have the cards stacked against us. You are the one who determines how your college experience plays out. Become a “yes” person — join clubs, take classes outside of your comfort zone, meet new people and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you think you may need it. You are not alone; you just have to look in the right places for the people in the same position as you who may be able to help.