KOKOMO, Ind. — As a first-generation college student who grew up in foster care, Sara Poe-Jarrett hasn’t had anyone at home able to guide her through earning her degree.
With the help of her advisors and faculty, however, she’s navigated the process, and graduates from Indiana University Kokomo in December with business degrees in accounting and finance.
“At the same time I was trying to figure out college, I had to decide what I was going to do when I turned 18,” said Poe-Jarrett, from Logansport. “It’s a big source of pride to me that I’m able to be a college student, with a double major, and do it all in three and a half years.”
IU Kokomo will celebrate students like Poe-Jarrett on Monday, November 9, as part of the fourth annual national First-Generation Celebration Day. The Office of Student Life will give away pre-packaged cupcakes and buttons for first-generation students, in a tent set up in the Quad.
It’s a meaningful day to Christina Downey, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and student success, because she was a first-generation student herself.
“As part of this celebration, we recognize the value and the strengths of these particular students,” said Downey. “Because my parents didn’t go to college, I didn’t have an understanding of the setting. I didn’t know how to make certain kinds of decisions. You learn an entirely new culture in a short period of time, and how to perform in that culture.
“These students become incredible resourceful and resilient,” she added. “They are like pioneers in their family. They are often very independent, they are self-motivated, they are creative and innovative in how they solve problems. They are very appreciative of everything the campus offers to help them along, and are often more willing to step forward.”
Downey added that first-generation students face unique pressures that others, whose family members have been to college, do not.
“It can be tough,” she said. “You know your family is counting on you. They’re proud of you, but they are sacrificing for you.”
That’s an experience Kaylee Stearnes, from Tipton, relates to, as the daughter of young parents.
“Neither of them had the chance to go to school themselves,” she said. “When I started looking at college, they had no idea what we were getting into. They had no idea what it was like.”
The financial aspect of college was a big challenge, said Stearnes, who graduates in May with a degree in elementary education.
“Navigating through applying for student loans and scholarships, and even filling out the college application was confusing to all of us,” she said. “We really had to go through it all at the same time. They were learning it along with me.”
Both Stearnes and Poe-Jarrett said their faculty members and advisors were willing to answer questions and offer advice when they asked.
“At IU Kokomo, your professors want you to succeed, even if you aren’t in their major,” Stearnes said. “They’ve been a huge support system.”
Downey said IU Kokomo supports first-generation students through its first year experience program — which places students in small cohorts with a faculty member who can act as a mentor — along with academic advising, and a success coaching program. The goal is to build community for all first-year students, and create an environment in which they feel comfortable asking for what they need.
“We try to let them know that if you are the first in your family to go to college, we want to be here for you,” she said. “We provide a lot of individualized outreach that they value, because most aren’t expecting it.”
Many professors can relate, Downey added, as about a third of them were also first-generation college students.
“When students find that out, I can tell they are really struck by it,” she said. “We have succeeded, gone on to graduate education, and now we are here for them. We can share our experiences and support.”