Dontrey Ewing never thought he would be going to college.
No one in his family had gone, he said.
But in high school he connected with a program that helped him find his way to a campus.
Neither of Isabella Ertel’s parents went to college, but when a counselor brought the idea to her attention during her junior year in high school, she said she saw a path.
Cherri Stafford knew from age 6 she wanted to be an animal doctor. She said watching her mom’s persistence in taking care of her and her eight siblings in Whitewater helped her become who she is today.
The three are UW-Whitewater first-generation students, defined by the university as students whose parents don’t have four-year college or university degrees.
Looking around campus in 2009, they would have seen fewer students like them. The first-generation student population was only 14.5 percent of UW-Whitewater undergraduates eight years ago.
In 2017, nearly half—40.1 percent—of undergraduate students are first generation.
The students said the school has resources to help first-generation students acclimate to campus, but they see some students not accessing the services that would help them.
So they’re stepping in.
Now that they are at UW-W, some first-generation students have turned back to work with others from similar backgrounds.
“If it wasn’t for the program, I probably wouldn’t have came to college myself,” Ewing said. “It’s a lot of students that I visit who are in the same position. And they thank me all the time, and they tell me if it wasn’t for me coming, they don’t know if they would have ever thought about going to college.
“It’s so rewarding to hear them say that,” he said.
Getting to college
One day when Ewing was running passes from the Beloit Memorial High School counselor’s office, he ran into Pamela Warren.
Warren was a recruiter with Talent Search, a program for low-income students to put them on a path to college, Ewing said. The program allowed students to prepare for the ACT and provided a summer option to bring students to campus.
“Everyone was very excited,” when Ewing received his acceptance letter at UW-W, he said.
Similarly for Ertel, a counselor told her she should start thinking about college.
The Sheboygan native said the process of searching for and applying to colleges was done primarily on her own.
“It was really kind of difficult,” she said.
She didn’t feel any pressure from her parents, something she suspected students with parents who hold college degrees would feel in their college searches.
“Of course I had support at home, but, like, if I decided to drop out of college, my parents probably wouldn’t be upset,” Ertel said. “I think it was the way they saw it as something extra that I wanted to do to make my life a little better.”
Stafford said her mom started college but didn’t graduate. So she still was able to help her daughter during the application process to the school right across the street.
But Stafford classified herself as an independent person. She’s on the pre-med track to becoming the veterinarian she has dreamed of being since she was 6 years old.
“I kind of just figured it out on my own,” she said of getting to college.
The extent to which people use assistance in getting to college varies, but first-generation students lack the institutional knowledge that comes from moving through the process with someone who has done it before.
College is an adjustment for every new student, but first-generation students said they face unfamiliar difficulties when they arrive on campus.
‘Figure it out together’
As someone who saw first-hand how a program could help him get to college, Ewing decided to immediately work for the same cause.
The summer after he graduated high school, Ewing said he started working for the Upward Bound program at UW-W.
Now, the senior studying sociology and human resource management spends two days a week going to two different high schools in Milwaukee to advise students and help them reach college.
Ewing thought back to his college search mistakes—he said he didn’t take advantage of scholarships, for example—and said he doesn’t want others to fall into similar situations.
Once she was on campus, Ertel said it was hard for her to find resources. She put off getting involved in extra-curricular activities.
Last year, the senior public relations major joined others in creating First Warhawks in Flight, a student organization for first-generation students that directs them to services.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for first-generation students to come and get to know people that are similar to them and have a similar background as them,” Ertel said. “It was kind of like, there’s so many other students that are first generation that could really benefit from having a group or a student organization that can help them along the way.”
Stafford said college is a major transition for any student, but UW-W does a good job of being considerate of all types of students.
“We’re all trying to figure it out together,” the junior said.
Jeff Angileri, an assistant university spokesman, cited some of the university’s resources he said helps first-generation students.
The Mary Poppe Chrisman Success Center provided free tutoring services, Angileri said in an email. The McNair Scholars program aims to bring underrepresented students into graduate-level education.
Pathway for Success is an academic support program for students at risk of failing, Angileri said. Because many of the participants are first-generation students, Angileri said, the program requires study sessions, group meetings and contacts with an adviser.
“The goal is to help students transition into the university environment, develop self-responsibility and motivate them to learn,” he said in an email.
Ewing said the main issue isn’t the amount of resources available to help first-generation students, but rather it’s making sure people are connected with those trying to help them.
If first-generation students don’t connect with the resources, Ewing said, some may fall off the map. And while some students can afford an unpaid internship in New York, Ewing said he needs to find something local that pays.
Ewing said first-generation students may also be nervous in the classroom and embarrassed to ask questions for fear of seeming ignorant.
“A lot of first-generation students come into school, and some don’t make it past the first or second semester of school,” Ewing said. “It’s not because they don’t have the knowledge or skills to do the work. It’s because they’re usually afraid to speak up.”
He said speaking up could have helped him, but he was afraid of seeming dumb.
Ewing originally started at UW-W in 2007, but at one point he was dismissed and lost financial aid, he said. He had to pay for school himself.
“Had I spoke up and talked to professors and talked to staff, I probably could have got the resources that I needed, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to talk to them because they didn’t really talk to me,” he said.
“So if more people took the time to actually talk to the students and get to actually know them, we could probably have more first-generation students staying around,” he said.