Navigating the first-gen experience: lessons learned and shared

Navigating the first-gen experience: lessons learned and shared

The First-Generation Network connects students with alumni who have walked a similar path.

Transitioning to college can be challenging for any student, but those who are the first in their families to attend college face unique hurdles. That’s why Rochester launched the First-Generation Network in June 2021. The network serves first-generation alumni, students, families, friends, and supporters, offering mentorship, networking, and community building.

“The college experience can be incredibly isolating and intimidating without a community of those with shared backgrounds,” says Celeste Glasgow Ribbins ’91, a facilitator and consultant who cochairs the network with Doug Austin ’98, ’04S (MBA) and Jessica Colorado ’12, ’20W (MS).

Austin, a health plan operations, finance, and IT specialist echoes Ribbins. “The network provides opportunities for first-generation students to ask questions that they might not be able to ask of their families because—as much as those who are closest to them may want to help and have encouraged them along the way—they haven’t gone through the same experiences.”

Each of the cochairs wishes they’d had more guidance both on their paths to college and once they arrived. “Many high school students don’t even realize college is a possibility or understand the application process,” says Colorado, who grew up in New York City and majored in chemistry. She credits her high school English teacher, Dr. Barbara Rowes—who was awarded the University’s Singer Family Prize for Excellence in Secondary Education in 2012—with helping her navigate applications and better understand her choices.

Colorado faced an additional challenge in that her parents immigrated to the US from Colombia in the 1980s and didn’t know English well. “When they came to campus for orientation and other events, they couldn’t ask questions, and I didn’t know what I should be asking for them,” she says. “They also needed me to translate. It was a lot.”

Colorado has dedicated her career to helping underserved populations. She’s a policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association in Washington, DC, and a member of the University’s Diversity Advisory Council. Earlier in her career, she worked at the University’s David T. Kearns Center.

Ribbins, who is from Cleveland, chose Rochester for its proximity to home, its relatively small size, and its rigorous academics. She sang in the Gospel Choir and in Vocal Point, was a resident advisor, and was a member of the Black Students Union.

Austin grew up in the Catskills, where he says the “cows outnumbered the students.” In addition to his leadership role within the network, he serves as a mentor through his local Chamber of Commerce. He’s also served on many College class reunion committees and is a member of the University’s Diversity Advisory Council.

Claudia De Leon, Rochester’s associate director of affinity networks and equity, diversity, and inclusion programs, was a first-generation student herself. “The First-Generation Network amplifies the voice of first-generation students and alumni by connecting them with those who have already navigated college’s challenges and many of life’s ‘firsts,’” De Leon says.

The cochairs encourage first generation alumni to join the network, and they want current student and recent alumni to know the network is here help them on their paths.

Adds Colorado, “I had to figure out a lot on my own, but I made it to Commencement, and they can, too.”

Headshot of Doug Austin ’98, ’04S (MBA)
Doug Austin ’98, ’04S (MBA)
Headshot of Jessica Colorado ’12, ’20W (MS)
Jessica Colorado ’12, ’20W (MS)
Headshot of Celeste Glasgow Ribbins ’91
Celeste Glasgow Ribbins ’91

—Kristine Kappel Thompson, Rochester Review, Spring 2024