Helping First-Generation Students Find Community at GW

University programming through the Center for Student Engagement aims to recognize the strengths that first-generation students bring to GW.

First Gen Dinner
President Thomas LeBlanc engaged with first-generation in college students during a monthly First Friday Dinner. (Photos: William Atkins/GW Today)
August 05, 2019

By Briahnna Brown

Emma Elmore, a junior business administration major from Laurel, Ind., never really knew what it meant to be a first-generation college student.

The college application process was hard for her because her parents did not have the experience to help her find answers to her questions, and she chose George Washington University because of the location and the opportunities available to her. In the beginning of her first semester she was invited to a First Friday Dinner hosted by the Center for Student Engagement, where first-generation students come together on the first Friday of every month to learn from workshops and share a meal.

It was there that Ms. Elmore met other GW students who shared the same struggles, and she was able to learn through her peers what it meant to be a first-generation college student. Through these dinners, Ms. Elmore found her community.

“The first-gen community is my home on campus,” Ms. Elmore said. “Just being able to go to those dinners once a month and really being around people who are experiencing the same things I am has been great."

Programming like the First Friday Dinners is designed to help GW’s first-generation students embrace their differing backgrounds and connect them with resources that can help them utilize their unique strengths, said Bridgette Behling, director of community support and leadership for the Center for Student Engagement.

"First-gen students come to GW with important life skills and experiences,” Ms. Behling said. “It’s our goal in our work with them that we honor that, partner with them to build a sense of community and connect them with resources to thrive while they're at GW," Ms. Behling said.

first friday dinner

GW's first-generation college students can enjoy a dinner while gaining academic and life skills and building a community with their peers.

The workshops that precede the First Friday Dinners teach skills such as networking, succeeding academically, eating nutritiously on a budget and other topics that the students request. The CSE also offers a donor-supported equipment bank with laptops and cookware for students, as well as blazers for job interviews.

They also run a pre-orientation program called Founding Scholars to bridge the gap between high school and college and, in partnership with student organization First-Gen United, they pair incoming first-generation students with upper-class first-generation mentors.

Additionally, there is a floor in Thurston Hall reserved for first-generation students. The CSE offers additional programming for these residents, such as meals and guest speakers, Ms. Behling said. The faculty-in-residence on the floor was also a first-generation student, which is part of a larger effort to identify faculty and staff allies who can relate to the first-generation student experience.

The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) recognized GW for its demonstrated commitment to improving the experiences of first-generation students. Through the association’s First Forward program, the CSE staff can connect with other recognized institutions to share ideas on new ways to enhance the experiences of first-generation students.

"It's both an honor and an opportunity to continue to advance and grow the programs by connecting us with a network of other schools and institutions from across the country who are also deeply committed to that," Ms. Behling said.

Luis Otero, a senior from Cornelia, Ga., studying international business, credits Ms. Behling, program coordinator Brittany Abraham and CSE staff for helping him to adjust to college life at GW. Many of the challenges he faced as a first-generation student were mitigated by being in the first cohort of Posse Scholars at GW, where he had peer support with a diverse group of students. He still struggled with some life skills, gaining institutional knowledge and financial literacy, as well as overcoming imposter syndrome, an internalized doubt that an individual belongs.

He received support from Ms. Behling and Ms. Abraham on everything from planning an event for First Generation United, to dealing with classes and exams, and would go to their offices to vent and talk. Mr. Otero was able to develop a support system through them while building a community of first-generation students who share his experiences.

"Sometimes I was questioning whether or not I had the intellectual capacity and ability to be able to perform along with my peers,” Mr. Otero said. “That really takes a toll, but it isn't until you're able to continue to drive the conversation and talk to other students, so they can hear they're not the only one going through this, that you all become stronger."

The Center for Student Engagement will host a number of programs in the 2019-2020 academic year to continue to foster community and show commitment to first-gen students' experiences.

Student Life


President LeBlanc Speaks to First-Generation Students

March 26, 2018
At the Alliance for the Low-Income & First-Generation Narrative conference, Dr. LeBlanc discussed the value of taking chances and taking advantage of opportunities.

What It Means to be First Generation at GW

May 04, 2016
Students who are first in their families to attend college are working with administrators to meet their unique needs.