Academics & Research / Winter 2018

Essay: The First to Belong

“Like many first-generation students, I believed I needed to make it on my own; that to ask for further support would only validate the sneaking suspicion I had that I didn’t deserve to be there in the first place.”

Lili Rodriguez is DU’s vice chancellor for campus life and inclusive excellence.


I am a double first-generation scholar. By that I mean that I am of both the first generation in my family born in the U.S. and the first generation in my family to attend college. There was so much about academia I did not understand. For instance, I never notified my college that my only reliable parent had passed away after my first year. I never told my professors how it affected me to watch cancer attack my father’s body. The fact that my financial aid package changed was the only indication of awareness I received from my college about my father’s death.

Like many first-generation students, I believed I needed to make it on my own; that to ask for further support would only validate the sneaking suspicion I had that I didn’t deserve to be there in the first place.

More than a quarter of college students today can relate to my experience. In the next two decades, at least 40 percent of college-seeking applicants will be first-generation, and most of them will be low-income. This will require significant changes to how universities support and educate students.

I find the shifting legal and practical implications of colleges standing in loco parentis (“in the place of the parent”) quite fascinating. There was a time when colleges could fully dictate their students’ personal lives; curfews and social policies were strict. As the Woodstock generation declared its independence, in loco parentis waned and universities became mere bystanders to their students’ personal lives, able to focus their resources on research and academics almost exclusively.

Yet, most theories of student development indicate that students cannot learn if their basic needs are not met. If we acknowledge that over a quarter of children currently live in poverty, that the opioid epidemic is orphaning millions of them, and that the future college-going population will have experienced mediocre medical, dental, psychological and educational care — what then is the role of a contemporary university?

These are the challenging questions we face. We are attempting to find the sweet spot on the pendulum. A place that recognizes that students entering colleges today have much more to learn and to navigate than is obvious from their course syllabi. Universities are dealing with food and housing insecurities, never-before-seen levels of anxiety and depression, an increase in suicidal and other self-harm behaviors, and many other legal and practical challenges. Where does our role begin and end? Where should it?

As a student, I certainly didn’t expect some of the challenges I faced once I was on my own. I didn’t realize I would need to plan for housing and food when campus closed down for winter and spring breaks. I had to forgo unpaid internships each summer in order to make a living. The hardest thing to learn and the most important lesson I can teach in my current role: College is not meant to be a solitary journey. 

That lesson is the foundation of our current planning at DU. We have implemented a first-generation family orientation program to introduce new students to campus resources and people. We are developing pre-orientation programs that can help us take the 250 or more first-generation students that arrive each year and provide them with adequate time to familiarize themselves with campus and, most importantly, to instill in them the awareness that their voice and contribution to DU is key to realizing its excellence. They should be proud to be first. To be trailblazers.

The more I do this work, the more I understand every function of the student support experience and hope to redesign it with the current social context in mind. Universities must become ecosystems that provide not only the theories, but the practical skills students need to navigate this journey with a strong sense of belonging, purpose and empowerment.


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