First-Generation students share challenges, successes

Lakeisha Ferreira and Zoya Tahir
Friday, October 10, 2014 - 3:14pm
Blake Eligh

University life is an adjustment for any new student, but for those who are the first in their families, it can bring a different set of challenges.

At a recent panel discussion hosted by UTM’s Student Life team, first-generation students shared their experiences. The panel was part of a transition program aimed at “first-generation students”—defined as those students who are studying towards a degree and are the first in their family to go to university in Canada.

The students shared the challenges they faced—financial, cultural and institutional—and how they found success at UTM.

Lakeisha FerreiraFourth-year political science student, Lakeisha Ferreira, the child of immigrant parents from Trinidad-Tobago and Gambia, was raised by her mother in a low-income neighbourhood in Toronto. Ferreira says she saw education “as a way to get out.”

“My mother wanted me to get a higher education, but it was hard for her to help us,” she says. “I had to push myself and get there by myself.” The University of Toronto was her first choice school. “I was really happy when I received that acceptance letter,” she remembers. The first in her family and amongst her friends to go to university, Ferreira is committed to forging ahead. “I do this to end the cycle of poverty.”

Zoya TahirPakistani-born Zoya Tahir, a fifth-year biology major, has her parents’ support, but finds it challenging to juggle her dreams with their wishes. “My mother wanted to be a doctor, but she had to work to support the family,” she says. “Education was something they pushed for. There was a lot of pressure for me to do well.” Tahir juggles parental expectations with her own desires. Her parents, who hoped she would go into medicine, are coming around to Tahir’s plans to earn her masters in conservation biology, “It’s hard, as the first person. You have a lot of expectations,” she says. “I have to pave the way. I thought I would fail, and it was scary.”

Abisola OlaniyiFourth-year psychology student Abisola Olaniyi is the first in her family to go through the higher education system in Canada. Her parents were educated in England and Nigeria before arriving in Canada, however Olaniyi has had to find her way through the application process—and more—on her own. “The system is very, very different here,” she says.

Ferreira says that one major challenge for her was navigating the scholarship and grant system. “There are the tuition fees, but there are also ways around that through grants and scholarships.” Getting help from her high school guidance counselors and UTM staff helped her discover which grants she qualified for, and encouraged her to apply for ones she hadn’t considered.

Before she arrived at UTM, Olaniyi admits she was worried about failing. “I was scared,” she says. “People told me I would be alone, and I might fail." But she found many resources and people who were there solely here to help students like her.

All three students found campus transition programs to be very helpful as they adjusted to university life. “They walked us through the library and let us know what resources were available,” Tahir remembers. “The tours opened physical doors, but also opened metaphorical doors, as well. There was so much here I didn’t know existed.”

Ferreria found the help she needed through the library’s Academic Skills Centre. Support-based first-generation and first-year student programs helped her to stay focused on her course work.

Mentorship programs have also helped the students. “If your parents haven’t gone to university, how can they help with masters or PhD programs?” aks Tahir. “There are things your parents just wouldn’t know, like how to get into a PhD program, or what jobs exist after university.”

“I didn’t want to identify as a first-generation student. But now, I see it more positively. I’ve gotten this far—I was capable,” says Tahir. “My parents couldn’t provide the academic support, but they’ve been there, encouraging me. It’s a point of pride for me now.”

Olaniyi was also reticent about revealing her first-generation identity, but says now that she’s proud of how far she’s come. “You learn the tips and tricks to get through all by yourself,” she says. “You may have fumbled along the way, but you did it. You did it.”

The panel is just one of the activites planned by First in the Family at UTM initiative. Coming up this fall, the First Cup mentorship program will pair current first-generation students with staff, faculty or alumni who are former first-generation students. Through the program, students and mentors will meet for informal coffee chats to discuss challenges and share advice as part of an effort to help first-- students navigate the challenges of university life.

First-Generation students Zoya Tahir and Lakeisha Ferreira share the tips that helped them find success at UTM >