First generation college students go viral

UCONN student Gabe Castro's I'm First video.

First Lady Michelle Obama has launched a new effort to encourage more disadvantaged students to go to college. Mrs. Obama herself was a first-generation college graduate. About a third of college students today are the first in their families to pursue higher education, but those students are much less likely to graduate than students with college-educated parents. A new campaign aims to change that by tapping into the power of YouTube.

In a series of homemade videos, first generation college students and graduates offer encouragement, empathy and sometimes stern advice. Like from Daniel Lugo, a first-generation graduate and now dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College.

“Trust me,” he says to the camera, framed diplomas on the wall behind him. “Life can be a lot harder if you choose not to be first.”

This is the “I’m First” storytelling project, from the nonprofit Center for Student Opportunity. It was inspired by the “It Gets Better” project for gay and lesbian teens facing bullying, says executive director Matt Rubinoff.

“These students may be in households and in schools and in communities where there aren’t many college-educated role models or influences,” Rubinoff says. “At the end of the day, students are responding most to those who they can personally relate to.”

I’m First launched last month. It’s got a few dozen videos so far, including one from Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He wasn’t first, but wants others to be.

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Rodney Savannah is a junior at the University of Southern California. In his video, he talks about growing up with a single mom in a low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles.

“Being able to hear first-hand from other college students would have helped out a lot, because my mom wasn’t able to give me any actual advice,” he said in an interview. “Just, you know, ‘good luck, and make us proud.’”

The I’m First website also lists more than 150 member colleges with services and support for first-generations students, like peer mentoring and summer bridge programs that help students adjust to college life.

When those students get to college they can feel isolated, says Maggie Cahalan, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

“And now somebody is standing up and saying, ‘Well this is something to be proud of, not something to be hidden or that has a stigma to it,’” she says.

The campaign is hoping the next person to say that in a video will be Michelle Obama.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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