Challenges for First Generation Students

McNair Scholars Reflect on their Experiences at UNL

by Jenn Andersen, McNair graduate assistant

Everyone knows starting college is hard. For the first generation college student, however, there are unique challenges that come with being the first in your family to attend college. Below are some first-hand experiences of current McNair Scholars and alumni who were first-generation college students at UNL.

What challenges did you face as a first-generation student? Were there challenges that you specifically remember being unique to your situation as a first-generation student?

Zully Perez Sierra (McNair Senior Scholar): “As a first-generation student, I had a slow and difficult start in college. For example, I retook a calculus course not knowing the different options of tutoring available to college students. For my first two years, I didn’t know of the job opportunities in my major which lead to unclear goals of obtaining a degree.”

Kassie Guenther (McNair Scholar 2013–2015): “Two specific memories come to mind. The first was after I’d been accepted to UNL and I sat down at the computer with my mom to fill out acceptance paperwork. I remember being asked what courses I wanted to enroll in, what residence hall I wanted to live in, which meal plan I wanted to purchase, and how I’d be paying the University. Although this was a fun and exciting time, it also resulted in my first real wave of shock and anxiety. I started to realize I didn’t know anyone who could share their experiences about what college was like or tell me which choices to make. I had no idea how I was going to pay for my tuition, room, and board, or books, and didn’t know where to begin in terms of choosing classes or a residence hall. My loved ones provided me with their warmth and support, but I struggled with finding individuals who had been through the process and could definitively tell me what college was going to be like. The second situation occurred as I sat in a large lecture hall during freshman year, learning about careers and opportunities available to psychology majors. For the first time, I learned that I’d need to pursue graduate work to obtain my dream career – being a psychologist. As naive as this sounds, I had no idea because nobody I knew had ever been through this process or knew anything about this major! Not only did I have few people to talk to about the rigors of being an undergraduate, I felt lost and alone in the idea of graduate school.”


Did you utilize office hours/academic advisors as an undergraduate? Why or why not?

Zully: “I utilized office hours frequently because I was used to asking instructors questions about the material in high school. I also would find myself struggling in courses in which my exam grades were lower than I had ever obtained. I wanted professors to know I cared about learning but needed help to understand the material.”

Kassie: “Every single semester I went to visit Celeste Spier and Tony Lazarowicz in the advising center to discuss my options. As annoyed as they might have been with my list of questions and frequent visits, I relied on them for academic advice and support. They understood my concerns, provided valuable information and ultimately guided me through much of my undergraduate career. I owe them both a huge thanks!”

Alicia Michelle Rogers (McNair Senior Scholar): “Professors are truly one of the best—often untapped—resources students have on campus. Their wealth of information, extending from the information they teach to professional development, to life experience, really enriches those students who choose to step into their office and initiate conversation and a relationship with them. Eventually, all students will have to ask their professors for professional recommendations, especially those planning to pursue graduate education. When relationships are built early and maintained with faculty, they get a better idea of who the student is, their abilities and passions, and are better able to convey those attributes in letters of recommendation.”


How did you become active in your lab/ get to know your McNair mentor? Did you feel comfortable using your mentor as a resource for academic advising and other types of advice after the McNair Summer Research Experience (MSRE)?

Zully: “By meeting an upperclassman through an engineering organization, I learned about research opportunities at the university. Therefore, I asked my academic advisor about research opportunities in the department, and that same day my advisor introduced me to my current McNair mentor. I’ve asked my McNair mentor about the type of conferences to attend and present our research.”

Kassie: “I decided to simply be honest with my research lab and McNair mentor, for that was the only way I was going to succeed in the pursuit of graduate school. I set up countless meetings and asked real and honest questions. I specifically remember asking what graduate school was like, how they handled moving away from home, what the possibilities of being accepted were, and if they felt they had a work-life balance. These were answers I wanted and needed to know, and they were some of the only people who could provide me with that knowledge. Sometimes, looking back, I feel a sense of remorse in asking so many questions. Perhaps I was too burdensome, maybe I took up a lot of their valuable time, what if some of my questions seemed inappropriate or made me appear immature and unsure of myself? In the end, I am happy I asked those difficult questions and was proactive in my attainment of knowledge because it led to my successful admission to a graduate program.”

Michelle: “Honestly, all it took was an email and an in-person meeting with my McNair mentor to get me involved in the research I am now a part of. What I found most interesting was that he told me the main reason why he allowed me into his lab was my involvement in the McNair Scholars program. Besides myself, he has only ever allowed one other UNL undergraduate student to work in his lab (to my knowledge). Since the research deals with HIV and other human pathogens, it was important that he felt assured of my character and that I could handle the responsibility and risks of the research—being a McNair Scholar gave him that confidence. Now I’ve been in his lab for over two years and have built a positive working relationship with a well-connected professor who will help me in any way to reach my personal and professional goals. I felt comfortable utilizing my mentor as a resource for advising. What I think is important is that students take the initiative to meet with their mentors. Mentors are very busy individuals, saturated in meetings and responsibilities which often doesn’t leave them much time for advising. To counteract this, students need to be purposeful in their connections with their research mentors. This means initiating times to meet, developing a plan for the conversation they wish to have, and following up with their mentors after the meeting. Communication is the key to all relationships, and research mentors are no exception.”


How did you handle your MSRE project? Did you get results other than what you expected? How did you handle the results? Any particular frustrations that came up during MSRE, and how did you handle them?

Zully: “For the MSRE project, I followed the research outline/task list that I’d need to have signed by my mentor and give to McNair staff. The task list helped me to organize and keep track of every day to day tasks of the research.”

Kassie: “I worked on a team of helpful and inspiring graduate students who provided encouragement, feedback and the ability to learn and challenge myself. With their help and guidance, I felt few struggles throughout the process because I knew that I was doing my best, and they were helping me to produce good work. This is not to say that the experience was not challenging and effortful. I just knew to not be discouraged because I was surrounded by amazing supporters.”

Michelle: “I think I handled it fairly well. My biggest challenge was balancing time at the lab with MSRE deadlines and other responsibilities. What helped me was meeting with my mentor to come up with a reasonable deadline schedule by which to plan my weeks with. Having this schedule helped me to allocate my time appropriately throughout the summer, ensuring no area was neglected. Even if I did get behind in my research, communicating this with my mentor was key. It showed him that I was mindful of my lab work, while also demonstrating resourcefulness with my time as a student.”


What resources do/did you utilize as a first-generation student for support as an undergraduate student? Did you go on to participate in them as an advisor/mentor?

Zully: “I became involved in three engineering organizations. In two of the organizations, I held executive positions as volunteer chair and as treasurer. I’m also a William H. Thompson Scholar and I served as a mentor my sophomore year and as a tutor the last two years. I also joined a bible study. I used first-year experience and transition programs, study shop, OASIS, and resource centers. Overall all of the resources were very helpful for any class assignment or studying for exams.”

Kassie: “I relied heavily on my involvement in the William H. Thompson Scholars Learning Community. They took me under their wing when I arrived at college, provided me with a mentor and cohort, taught me valuable academic and professional skills, and helped to develop me as a leader as well as a person. As soon as I was able, I did my best to give back to the community by working as a peer mentor to other incoming students. The program was a large contributor to the success that I felt in college as well as the sense of belonging and community.”

Michelle: “Other than faculty mentors, I didn’t utilize any resources on campus—because I didn’t know about the resources available to me or where to look to find them. I also feel as though my faculty mentors filled the necessary gaps for me that other resources would have filled. However, I was involved in the First Husker program at UNL as a mentor for incoming first-generation college freshmen. It’s designed well to set the student up for success at UNL, answering questions for students, as well as their parents. One of the biggest things I found most helpful for students about the program was the workshop on finances. It went over everything students need to know about how to manage their money to finding financial aid. I didn’t use the Study Stop locations, but I always directed students to this for help in their classes (I’m a teaching assistant). They have tutors there to help students in a number of different classes, as well as free coffee. Who doesn’t like coffee?”


Utilize Your UNL Resources!

There are many resources on campus for first-generation students. It’s important to build a relationship with your academic advisor to help navigate through your undergraduate career, as well as discuss your long-term career goals and what resources might be available to help you reach those goals.

The First Husker Program brings first generation incoming freshmen to campus early to allow them to acclimate to college life before the craziness of move-in day begins. Throughout your time at UNL, you can access Academic Success Workshops, the Study Stop, and First Husker Peer Mentors. Find out more information about these and other transition programs at

Other key resources include:


And remember, as McNair Scholars, you don’t have to navigate your undergraduate or graduate careers alone! You’ll find support is always just an email or phone call away. Once a McNair Scholar, Always a McNair Scholar!

Explore posts in the same categories: Accomplishments, MSRE, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, UNL McNair Alumni

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