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Online Mountaineer: Inside the Online Classroom

First-Generation Student? You are not alone!

August 24, 2021

Brittany Belcher posing with her baby.

A first-generation student is defined as someone whose parents or grandparents did not go to college.

If you are currently a first-generation student, or thinking of becoming one, you may be feeling lost and not sure of the decisions you need to make to enter the new world of higher education.

Do not worry! You are not alone. All you need to do is make the connections to the many people who are here to help you on your journey. You may not know what to do next, but you will figure it out.

“As a high school senior from a small town, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Brittany Belcher, a first-generation WVU senior majoring in General Business. “As a result, I started at WVU as an engineering major. However, I found that it wasn’t the track for me. Consequently, I decided to change my major into something with a lot of flexibility and room for growth.”

“Then later, I decided to switch my studies from on-campus to online because I needed to move closer to home due to some unforeseen circumstances. After that, my transition was very smooth because my advisor was super helpful with explaining my options and course work.”

Similarly, first-generation student Susan Maczko, who graduated with a Regents Bachelor of Arts degree and went on to earn a MA in Educational Leadership, says she knew in grade school that she wanted to go to college. However, she got married and had a family and her educational goals got delayed.

“In other words, I didn’t complete my degrees directly from high school,” says Maczko, who now works at WVU advising students. “However, the desire to earn a degree never went away and I returned to school in my 30’s part-time while working full-time.”

“As a result, I now have a career that I love.”

Both Belcher and Maczko were able to succeed because they made the connections they needed and learned the things they needed to know.

Making Connections

If you are a first-generation student, it is likely that you do not have family members to guide you.

According to Maczko, sometimes the families of first-generation students do not understand what it is like to be in college and do not know how to provide the support the student needs.

“Of course, if it is something you want or something you need in order to advance in your career, then you cannot let this lack of support influence you,” she said. “You will have to find the support you need in other ways.”

If you don’t have parents or older siblings who can help you with the process of entering college, there are plenty of others who are ready and willing to help, including advisors, friends, work colleagues, or even contacts on the internet.

“A friend helped me,” says first-generation student Dylan Starliper, a General Studies major at Potomac State. “I’m very happy that I went through with it. My goal is to become a police officer and to have a good family.”

Likewise, John Mullins, a first-generation student who earned a Bachelor of Arts in History and later a Master’s in Higher Education Leadership, also had friends who helped him. In his case, it was the people he worked with.

“I was fortunate enough to have been a work-study in the financial aid department throughout my entire undergraduate studies,” he says. “The staff in that department helped make sure that I kept on track with filing any and all paperwork needed while I was an undergrad.”

“As a result, my friends in that office were essential to my success as an undergraduate student and I can never thank them enough.”

For Gary Phillips, who studied Journalism and later Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Resources before entering the Educational Leadership Studies program, it was some truly excellent University 101 instructors who helped him.

“They were sophomores, but at the time it seemed like they had all the answers. I think they took the place of those older siblings who would have gone to school before me.”

Online Study May Be The Answer.

Additionally, some first-generation students have found that studying online can be a good option, especially if they live too far from campus and need to be close to home. It can also help those who work full-time or have a family, especially young children.

For instance, Danielle Pastorius, who lives about 50 miles away from campus and works full-time, would have found it very challenging to try to work around an in-person class schedule to obtain her degree.

“I decided to study online because, realistically, it was my only option,” says Pastorius, who is in the online master’s program for Safety Management.

Phillips, on the other hand, says his decision to study online was initially a decision born of circumstance, since COVID forced everything online for a while.

“Once I did it, I was stunned that I had not been studying online for years,” he says. “It’s more convenient in so many ways.”

“Online learning makes higher education accessible in ways that were unimaginable before. Consequently, students have opportunities now that they didn’t have even a few years ago.”

Starliper says he decided to study online because he has a baby to take care of, in addition to a full-time job.

“I wanted to do online classes for that reason, but then I found out that I’m actually better at stuff when I’m at home and taking my time.” he says.

As a student who has studied both on-campus and online, Belcher says she thinks there are some pros and cons to both.

“For example, I loved my time in Morgantown and all of the things I was able to experience at WVU, such as the AdventureWV trips. However, being able to continue my education while doing what’s best for me has lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.”

Tips For Success

In this section, we give first-generation students the following tips for success from WVU students and advisors who have been through the same experience:

Be prepared.
“Be prepared mentally, emotionally, and financially for this challenge. Schedule time each week to complete assignments. You have to schedule or plan study time and keep a calendar, so you know what is due and when you plan to complete it. Work ahead if possible, so if life throws a curve you do not get behind.” – Susan Maczko

You may have a side job.
“I work full-time at WVU right now and commute 50 minutes each way. Although online classes provide a lot of flexibility, juggling work, school, and personal life is very challenging.” – Danielle Pastorius

“My biggest challenge has been supporting myself and my family throughout my college career. I’m a bank-teller and it is hard working while in school. It requires you to be very disciplined.” – Brittany Belcher

Brittany Belcher posing with her baby.

Think ahead.
“I had children and a husband when I returned to school. They were supportive, but thinking ahead helped me a lot. If I had a commitment for one of the kids, I planned so I could attend all their functions and still not get behind.” – Susan Maczko

Susan Maczko on a scavenger hunt with her coworkers.

Check your financial options.
“My biggest challenge was I had no real guidance on the financial aid and didn’t fully understand what I was getting into with student loans. When I decided to obtain my master’s degree, I had also started working at WVU and I learned about the employee tuition waiver. This was a big help to me.” – Danielle Pastorius

Find out about student services.
“My biggest challenge was not knowing what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what student services were available, I didn’t know how a lot of processes worked, and I didn’t know to be looking into them before I needed them. It can be overwhelming, and it takes time to build familiarity with all the university resources available.” – Gary Phillips

Understand your degree choices.
“Lack of understanding the process of higher education and of the ramifications of the degree program that you pursue can create problems. Make sure you research your areas of interest and ask questions about what this degree will mean for the future.” – John Mullins

John Mullins in the woods.

Reach out to others.
“Don’t wait for professors, advisors, or other classmates to reach out to you. Reach out to them first and get their insight about projects if you don’t understand or know where to begin. Ask questions. Be engaged.” – Gary Phillips and Susan Maczko

Take a break if you need to.
“I have a one-year-old daughter and I’m thankful to have a very supportive partner. However, there are times when I’m up late doing homework because of the things I have to do when I get home from work. It can be hard, but don’t give up! If you need to take a break, whether it’s for five minutes or for a semester, do what’s best for you.” – Brittany Belcher

Stay focused.
“My advice would be to stay focused and give it your all. No one can take away your education.” – Danielle Pastorius

Be flexible.
“I have a wife, a seven-year-old son, a dog that can hear a potato chip the floor from a block away, and a cat that expresses affection by mauling. I definitely have a full plate. What I’ve found helps me is trying to strike a balance between planning ahead as much as I can and staying flexible when plans change.” – Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips wearing an apron in his kitchen.

In conclusion, completing your degree now can mean a better future: a career you love, advancement in your career, the ability to take care of your family, and the opportunity to always be learning something new.

For the future, Belcher says she would like to go into commercial banking and lending and see where that that takes her.

“In addition, I want to show my daughter that she can do anything she puts her mind to, despite any obstacles that might come her way. I’d like to show her that hard work pays off, and one day I want to be able to pay her way through college.”

“My goals for the future are to continue to learn as much as I can,” says Pastorius. “I am fortunate to work in a field where I learn something new each and every day.”

“My parents wanted me to have a better life than they had,” says John Mullins, a first-generation student who also works at WVU now, advising students. “ As a result, it was my parents who instilled in me a desire for higher education. Now, to carry this forward, I plan to continue working in academic advising, and helping other students succeed and have a better life.”

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