My Student Experience: Graduate student Jessica Riddell aims to increase support for first-generation graduate students with a new organization

When Jessica Riddell, a graduate student in the NC State College of Education’s Student Counseling and Development Program, came to NC State to earn her master’s degree, it was her first time living on a college campus. One day they noticed a group of high school students being led into the college. It wasn’t until later that Riddell, a first-generation student who shuttled between classes while earning his bachelor’s degree, learned why — it was a college tour, something Riddell had never experienced. previously.

“Even as a graduate student, I’m still learning things that I didn’t know as an undergrad that tend to be common knowledge for continuing-generation students,” Riddell said.

The desire to help first-generation graduate students better navigate the college experience inspired Riddell to create the College of Education’s First-Generation Graduate Student Organization. While student organizations for first-generation undergraduates at NC State already existed, Riddell wanted to create something tailored to the graduate student experience.

“There’s a misconception that once you get your undergraduate degree as a first-generation student, you’re kind of caught up, and so in college you should be on the same playing field. game,” Riddell said. “But that’s often not the case, and with graduate school it brings a whole new range of different challenges.”

Riddlell was also inspired by conversations they had with Associate Professor Angie Smith, who, along with Distinguished Professor Lance Fusarelli, serves as an advisor to the organization.

“As a first-generation student, I often struggled to find my way through my undergraduate and graduate experiences,” Smith said. “I learned that there are so many aspects of college life that I simply had not been exposed to before entering academia. My hope is to give back and share any information that might be helpful to students who may have similar experiences.”

One of the first steps Riddell took when starting the organization was to send out a survey to find out what other first-generation students expected of her. Riddell’s goal was to be as inclusive as possible and to make the organization a home for doctoral and master’s students, as well as those enrolled in other colleges and programs at the university.

“Even though we’re all first generation, we’re going to come in with different experiences and knowledge,” Riddell said. “And so being able to come together and help each other is definitely a positive thing.”

That’s part of what attracted Ph.D. Jennifer Mann. student in the field of study of the program Teacher Education and Learning Sciences Literacy and English Language Arts Education, to the organization.

“I was looking for a group of people who could understand my background without me having to explain it,” Mann said. “I was also looking for examples of successful scholars. I needed to see them to be able to imagine success for myself.

The group’s first two meetings, held in April over Zoom, offered that opportunity to its new members.

“It was a special and moving moment that we all got to share and understand that we were in this together,” said Monica Meza, who is earning her master’s degree in higher education administration.

Smith said the ability for students to create community is a significant first step.

“The organization is important because it taps into a population that could benefit from connecting with each other,” Smith said. “Higher education can be isolating in many ways. Creating a “space,” in person or virtually, for students to meet and connect on topics that matter to them can be helpful and provide positive long-term benefits. »

So far, the group has discussed potentially unfamiliar higher education jargon, research and travel funding, and ways to support other first-generation students. For the group’s third meeting, they were joined by Emily Hoey, who works at NC State’s Career Development Center, and discussed how to deal with impostor syndrome, the feeling that one is not qualified or unworthy of his position.

Meza said he claims to hear other students openly discussing their struggles.

“When I saw them [sharing], I realized it’s a common thing,” Meza said. “It’s something we share, and it’s not just me.”

Riddlell said their time in the college’s Student Counseling and Development program helped prepare them to create a gathering place for first-generation students.

“It’s working with people and being able to facilitate understanding and community without being in a judgmental realm,” Riddell said.

Eventually, Riddell hopes the organization will be able to partner with groups that support first-generation undergraduates and advocate for the needs of first-generation students on campus as a whole.

“Knowing that I’m making a difference in students’ lives is important to me,” Riddell said. “And that’s my main goal: how can I best help other students?” How can I bring what they ask? »

Just by starting the organization, Riddell has already created a home for first-generation graduate students like Mann.

“I immediately feel a kinship with the people in this organization,” Mann said. “I also feel responsible for helping them if I have institutional knowledge or know-how. I feel a sense of community with them.

Smith said the sense of community has a lot of potential.

“The ideas already generated are exciting and the possibilities are endless,” Smith said. “I look forward to the opportunity to connect current first-generation students with faculty, staff, administrators, and anyone who identifies as a first-generation student. We can learn so much from each other. Council leaders are committed to supporting each other and supporting all first-generation students. Given this care and intentionality, I believe the organization will continue to thrive and thrive.

Riddell’s long-term goal is to one day create a center at NC State that specifically serves first-generation undergraduates and graduate students. But for now, Riddeel is happy to make a difference through the College of Educations First Generation Graduate Student Organization.

“It’s pretty awesome to think that it went from just an idea to a real organization.” Riddlell said. I’m excited to know where it’s going to go.

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