First gen students at UCSF.

Celebrating First Gen Students

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Tuesday November 8th was National First Generation (First Gen) Day, a day to celebrate students who are the first in their families to go to college. UCSF is recognized by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators as a higher education institution committed to success of First Generation students, an identity that 30% of students at UCSF identify as.

Here on campus, First Generation Support Services supports and celebrates First Gen students. The office was started in 2008, and further expanded in 2015 when the University of California system pushed to expand and support First Gen students across the UC.

First Gen services at UCSF provides a variety of supportive services for students at UCSF. The office connects First Gen students with First Gen faculty, staff, alumni, and, importantly, to each other. These relationships can be through mentorship and buddy programs, or more informally, through social events.

In these spaces “students don’t have to retell how school has been for them, or their responsibilities outside of school,” said Tiffany Lam, Assistant Director of Student Success, which oversees the office. “There’s no judgement.”

The office holds regular events for students like finance workshops, socials, and networking. There’s also a monthly book club started by first gen student leaders.

“Our first year was all books about First Gen stories,” Lam said, “but this year we have a variety of genres.”

UCSF First Gen Support Services is a unique office in the sense that it serves graduate and professional students specifically in health professions. At most college campuses, the majority of the First Gen population is undergraduate.

This is something Elizabeth Hoang, a student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, noticed when she started graduate school.

“As we go further into higher education, there are less first generation students,” Hoang said.

She is thankful for her fellow First Gen students in her program who share similar experiences being in graduate and medical school.

Here at UCSF, the office can focus specifically on issues that relate to graduate students. Graduate school presents unique challenges, like how to engage in professional development, balance intensive coursework with personal life, face imposter syndrome and how to describe graduate school, which is very different from undergraduate school, to peers and family members who are not familiar with the process.

A major focus of First Gen Support Services here at UCSF is to unravel much of the hidden curriculum in higher education.

Many obstacles in graduate school can go unaddressed, like how to navigate a student healthcare system, how to talk to Principal Investigators, professors, and other superiors, and how to set boundaries in a research environment. There can also be a lot of assumed prior knowledge in graduate fields, particularly in the medical field. 

There are many ways the UC system can continue to recruit, support and celebrate First Gen graduate students. For one, admission committees can continue to recognize the barriers First Gen individuals face in getting to and staying in graduate school.

Financial obstacles can be significant, so the UC system should continue to fund and provide scholarships to First Gen students.

Here at UCSF, there is a scholarship specifically for First Gen students. Programs also need to provide continual support for their First Gen students, including mental health services focused on First Gen issues, as well as office hours and space specifically dedicated to these students.

Most importantly, graduate schools must recognize that the starting spot for each student is unique.

“Being First Gen is not a visible identity,” Lam said. “Don’t assume every student knows everything. Each person comes with a different skill set.”

On November 8th, First Gen students across the country were celebrated. Here at UCSF, there was an ice cream social with a photo booth and a word collage. Students were asked to give three words to describe being First Gen.

Some of the most popular responses included “resilience,” “proud,” “perseverance,” “pioneer” and “community.” There was a video posted to the office’s Instagram page highlighting First Gen students across the different graduate schools. It was a day to celebrate the achievements and success of the First Gen community here at UCSF.

“Our students are so amazing!” said Lam.

If you’d like to learn more about or get involved with First Gen services here at UCSF, you can learn more at their website.