Believe in them: First-generation students share experiences and offer advice 

Before coming to the United States, Rosa De La Torre Burmeister lived in a cardboard house in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. She worked in agricultural fields on the U.S. side of the border, where she earned 5 cents per bucket for the chile she harvested. Rosa was the first in her family to become a citizen of the U.S. and the first to earn a college degree. Now, Rosa is NMSU’s program director for our TRIO Upward Bound Program, a federally funded program that helps high school students from the Gadsden Independent School District and Las Cruces Public Schools prepare for college. Her job is to help other students navigate the difficult and complex path from high school to college that she herself once traveled.

Nov. 8 was National First-Generation College Celebration Day, and NMSU’s celebration included a short video that aired during the Nov. 3 town hall webinar. Every student in the video, and all the panelists in the webinar, told compelling stories about their experiences as first-generation college students and what it means to be the first in their family to earn a college degree. The most important takeaway: Meeting the needs of first-generation college students is simple. We just need to see every student we encounter as an individual who deserves to be at NMSU, and who deserves our compassion, help, guidance, trust, and overall, our best effort to make it through college and succeed in life.

Somewhere between one-third and half of our students are first generation, and they are unlikely to announce their status. We hear from many, “I didn’t even know I was a first-generation student.” No surprise there – “first generation” is a term used by insiders, and these students are not higher education insiders. Rather, most first-generation students work very hard to fit in.

They work hard to get in, too. The challenges they face to get into college are daunting: They often lack family support, academic preparation, confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy. They face racial disparities. They are often alone in applying to colleges and for scholarships, and in completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Once they are in college, the adjustment is also difficult. Students report feeling inferior for not knowing how to navigate academic pathways, change majors or add minors, and register for courses. Fear and shyness prevent them from getting the help they need. Reaching out to faculty for mentoring is difficult, and their engagement in academics and the university community can suffer.

One thing these students do not lack, however, is motivation, and family ties are powerful motivators. They want to make their family and friends proud, and they want to set an example for brothers and sisters to follow.

We can all help them achieve their dreams and set that example. The first-generation panel was asked to name their most important source of support, and the answers demonstrated the power that each of us can have for our students: “The most important source of support for me was …” “A faculty member.” “A work-study supervisor.” “A janitor.” “An advisor.” “CAMP.” “TRIO.” “The American Indian Program.” And many others. In short, we can each be the person who makes a difference in a student’s life.

One student said: “At NMSU, you have great staff, great professors, and great services that will reach out to you, if you reach out to them.” But we don’t have to wait for any of our students to reach out to us. We can reach out and seek to understand their challenges, especially during these difficult times.

Last week’s panel was filled with stories of students who successfully found their way through higher education and are seeking to help others find their way. We see who they are now: engineers, directors, analysts, college deans, and even university presidents and chancellors. They are the people our students are working hard to become. We can help them. Please watch the video – I think you’ll find it’s worth much more than the four minutes you’ll spend.

Feedback is always welcome at

Be Bold, Be Kind, Be Safe.

Go Aggies!

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