Professors in Karla Maravilla’s writing classes would tell her how good her writing was. And she’d think, “Lies.”
Like many first-generation college students, Maravilla had a serious case of impostor syndrome, the feeling that she’d be found out by her professors and peers as a fraud who didn’t belong in college.
Most people are subject to occasional bouts with impostor syndrome, but first-gen students are especially prone. As the first people in their family to attend college, they may have a mix of complex emotions: guilt for what their families sacrificed so they could go to college, self- or family-imposed pressure to do well, anxiety about finances, and even identity crises about what it means for them to be the college-educated members of their family. All this can lead to a lot of anxiety and self-doubt.
“It was hard for me to believe any positive feedback,” Maravilla says. “Even now, it’s hard for me to believe anything positive related to me.”
Without the built-in support system of family members who know from experience what they’re going through, first-generation students often must figure out the complexities of college on their own. Even fundamental offices like financial aid and career services can seem overwhelming without guidance.
Since first-gens tend to come from lower-income backgrounds than their continuing-generation peers, many also deal with financial pressures. They may be working full-time while trying to attend classes, an arrangement that can be both exhausting and detrimental to their studies.
CWU senior Tanisha Roman had been working full-time in accounting and trying to attend classes when she finally realized the toll her schedule was taking.
“It wasn’t sustainable for me to have all of life’s challenges as a Black female, and work full-time, and go to school full-time,” she says. “They very much promote the idea that you can do this and have it all—but it’s just not true. It was really difficult.”
The Power of Attention
It often takes just one caring faculty or staff member to connect first-gen students with resources and opportunities. In Maravilla’s case, her imposter syndrome caused her to keep to herself. But one of her professors, Xavier Cavazos, saw potential in her writing skills and reached out—multiple times. Among other things, Cavazos encouraged Maravilla to apply to the McNair Scholars, a prestigious program that prepares students for graduate research and provides a healthy summer stipend.
With help from Cavazos, Maravilla applied and was accepted to the McNair program. After that, she gained the confidence to present her research at an academic conference and submit a poetry manuscript to a contest, where she became a semifinalist. Only then did Maravilla start to believe (sometimes) that her work was good.
Likewise, though recent CWU graduate Julianna Kropla had always loved school, it took a professor’s interest in her work to bring her into the fold. Making one connection led Kropla to Professor Maya Zeller, who became her primary mentor for the rest of her college career.
“She was a real driving force behind a lot of the opportunities I had, because I didn’t know they were there,” Kropla says of Zeller.
With Zeller’s support, Kropla became a McNair Scholar and was hired by the CWU Writing Center. Zeller also helped Kropla with her graduate school applications, editing her personal statement and writing a recommendation that helped her get accepted to a master’s program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston this fall.
But professors aren’t the only ones who help students new to the college experience. Roman, who has been fascinated with libraries since she was a little girl, transferred from Edmonds College when she learned that CWU offered a certificate and an associate’s degree in Library Science. The librarians at CWU helped her make the transition from a two-year college to a four-year university. One, Elizabeth Brown, has been Roman’s mentor from the beginning.
“It took me a minute to get the hang of how classes were taught and the expectations here,” Roman says. “In the beginning I went to [Brown] a lot, because I didn’t know what they were asking, or looking for. I definitely didn’t feel confident in my skills. She was always my cheerleader, and I’m so grateful to have her.”
In her first quarter, Roman found the Transfer Center and began regularly attending the Friday Coffee Chats to learn about the resources available to her. Through those connections, Roman found out about McNair Scholars, eventually being accepted as the program’s first satellite student.
Roman also has worked with the TRIO office, which provides financial support, plus advising and workshops on writing, study habits, and careers. The CWU Advocacy office has helped her navigate a number of other challenges.
“Help is really customized to whatever the student might need,” Roman says.
Many CWU faculty and staff are aware of the pressures and needs of first-gens because they’ve been there themselves. Andres Moreno, the associate director of Admissions, moved with his mother and sister from Mexico when he was young to be with his father, who worked as an agricultural laborer in the Yakima Valley. The oldest of six, his parents expected him to set an example by attending college. After some stops and starts, Moreno made it, as did all of his siblings.
Thanks to a volunteer opportunity that later became a paid job giving tours at CWU for prospective students, Moreno eventually was hired by the Office of Admissions, first as a recruiter for Latinx students. Right away, he saw the potential for helping first-generation students and their families.
“One of the pivotal things was that my family admired and was proud of the fact that I had a job that wasn’t in the fields or the orchards,” Moreno says. “I thought ‘This seems like a great opportunity to give back to Central and serve others, an opportunity to connect with families, including those who don’t look like me.’”
One of Moreno’s focus areas is creating pathways for traditionally underrepresented students, many of whom are first-generation. He and his team provide ways for students and their families to visit and access CWU, including offering Spanish language programming and preview days that allow parents to visit on the weekends. They also work with local high schools and community-based organizations that serve underrepresented students.
On the other end of the college journey, the CWU Alumni Office works to support first-gens in different ways. Casey Ross (’02), director of Alumni and Constituent Relations and a first-gen alumnus, knows the value of CWU connections first-hand. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for almost 20 years, he wanted a change of pace and reached out to former contacts at Central. He worked in a few different offices before landing his current position. Now, he wants today’s students to understand the value of alumni connections, too.
“My dream is that the alumni association will be the first place both current students and alumni turn to for career support and that our Wildcat Alumni will not only answer that call, but exceed expectations,” Ross says. “We are working to build an alumni culture where ‘Wildcats help Wildcats’ is commonplace.”
The main way Ross plans to enact this goal is through alumni mentorships. These relationships can range from short-term “flash mentorships”—one-time, one-hour connections to explore a career option—to more formal mentorships, which might involve three to five meetings where students can set career goals, learn about professional development, and work on finding a career that suits them.
Such mentoring opportunities are critical for first-gens, who may be unclear what career possibilities are available after college, or how to achieve their professional goals.
With that in mind, Ross has a message for his fellow Wildcat alums.
“First-gen students, like all students, need support in different ways,” he says. “We want our alumni to know that volunteering their time, talent, and insights can literally change a student’s life; the ripple effect of those relationships not only strengthens our Wildcat Nation but also our world. My goal is to have every student have an alumni mentor in some capacity, or at least to know that mentors are available.”