Photo of Troy Wildenberg, Maryan Garane, and Sonia Paredes

The first-generation force

Reframing student stories as strengths

Sonia Paredes grew up in north Minneapolis. Her parents always expected her to pursue higher education.

Troy Wildenberg of Wisconsin says the U of M campus felt right for him from his very first visit.

Maryan Garane hopes to use her college experience to create positive change and foster more resources for diverse communities in workplaces, schools, and government.

Paredes, Wildenberg, and Garane all came to the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) as first-generation college students. They and their siblings will be first in their families to earn a four-year degree.

On the University’s Twin Cities campus, CEHD is the college with the highest percentage of first-year, first-generation students—a total of 187 welcomed this fall. Of all CEHD undergraduates enrolled fall semester, 40.5 percent were first-generation to college, and 25 percent were both first-generation and low-income.

“If you look back historically, you can see that the University of Minnesota and many other land-grant institutions had a high population of first-generation students,” says associate professor Rashné Jehangir, PhD ’04, whose teaching and research focus on these students. “There’s a great history.”

As the nation’s demographics have changed over time, so have the students. In CEHD this fall, 73 percent of incoming first-generation students are students of color.
“They represent a really rich diversity,” says Jehangir.

Finding confidence

Troy Wildenberg and Professor Rashné Jehangir“Being a TRIO student has meant a lot to me,” says senior Troy Wildenberg. Like many in the program, he came to CEHD as a first-year student who had not yet declared a major. TRIO’s connection to the college helped him decide to stay.

Read Troy’s story.

A strength, not a deficit

Too often, the story of first-generation students focuses on their needs rather than the talents and strengths they bring.

“Many first-generation students have already negotiated multiple worlds, worked more than one job, speak more than one language—literally and figuratively—and are civically engaged,” Jehangir says. In reality, the barriers that first-generation students overcome in order to pursue higher education mean they arrive at college with a complex skillset.

“First-generation students have a tremendous amount of capital,” says Jehangir. “They’ve figured out how to prioritize complex life roles in complex life systems while also going to school and getting into college. In many ways, they have the kind of preparation that we hope all young adults would have. But too often, those issues are framed as a deficit instead of a strength.”

Jehangir began her own University career as a staff member working with first-generation students in TRIO, a federally funded program that supports traditionally underserved students pursuing college degrees at sites around the country. Working with TRIO changed her life. She credits her students’ resilience and the strengths and skills they brought to college with motivating her work today.

“CEHD is poised to demonstrate leadership in this arena, with students at the center, and to renew the conversation about access and excellence.” —Rashné Jehangir

In 2014, Jehangir partnered with the TRIO Student Support Services program to create a photo narrative project that was part of a course designed and taught by TRIO advisers. The course afforded students the space and language to talk about their identities as first-generation students, and they used photographs and texts to present stories of their own lived experiences. The photos and reflective narratives became part of a campus exhibit, Talking Pictures, that put students in front of and behind the lens of the camera.

“The photos challenge and provide a counter-narrative of who first-generation students are,” says Jehangir. These images and accompanying texts are part of a research study that challenges the deficit-based narrative of first-generation students.

Director of CEHD Career Services Jeannie Stumne, herself a former first-generation college student, knows that first-generation students bring a variety of strengths and struggles with them to school.

“They all come with unique lived experiences and stories that add to our college,” says Stumne, “and they are eventually going to add to the workforce, too.”

Learning from TRIO

As a professor and researcher, Jehangir continues to collaborate with the TRIO program at the University, which resides in CEHD.

“We’re lucky enough to house one of the top TRIO programs in the nation,” Jehangir says. “It has done tremendous good by partnering with faculty and creating academic spaces where students can thrive.”

At the U, TRIO has three essential programs. TRIO Student Support Services provides academic, financial, and personal counseling and support to 150 low-income, first-generation, and special-needs freshman across the Twin Cities campus each year. Upward Bound, a college prep program for underrepresented high school students, offers academic skill development and other support for college-bound students who go on to enroll in many colleges in the region. The TRIO McNair Program, named after the late African American astronaut Ronald McNair, readies first-generation college students for graduate school through paid research internships, mentoring, and test preparation.

“We’re at this unique space within the University and the college,” says Anthony Albecker, ’07, director of the McNair Scholars program at the U. The McNair program collaborates regularly with CEHD Student Services as well as faculty in the college in order to best serve their scholars. “CEHD is a key partner and provides significant support.”

Finding place

Sonia Paredes“I’ve always been a people person,” says Sonia Paredes, BS ’16. When she arrived at the U, Paredes hoped to find the right college community, but it wasn’t easy. “I definitely felt kind of isolated at the beginning until I found my space.”

Read Sonia’s story.



That partnership has made CEHD a leader in working effectively with first-generation students beyond the TRIO program. The college created a highly effective First Year Experience program that integrates and builds on the strengths of first-generation students. CEHD has one of the highest retention rates of first-year students—nearly 95 percent—and more than half its first-generation students graduate in four years.
In this information, Jehangir saw an opportunity. She is working to create a one-day symposium showcasing research and practice around first-generation college students and how to best support and learn from them.

The symposium, which she calls the First Generation Institute, is designed to increase awareness of the first-generation college experience, assess current support systems and identify gaps, establish faculty–student connections, and identify strategies for collaboration in support of first-generation college students across the University campus.

“My hope is for a place where partnerships can be more meaningfully solidified,” Jehangir says. “They can bubble up into ideas of support for first-generation students that are not just driven by one or two people but by many people in the college who do this work and care about it a lot.”

The issues of the first-generation student experience align closely with CEHD’s values. An event such as the First Generation Institute is not only timely but relevant to the college’s mission.

“We are poised to demonstrate our leadership in this arena, with students at the center, and cultivate a space that renews conversation about access and excellence,” she says. “We are doers. Let’s do this.”

Finding support

Maryan Garane“Just like you need water, you need education,” says senior Maryan Garane. Her parents fled civil war in Somalia and came to the United States in 1993. Growing up in Minnesota, Garane and her family worked hard to ensure that college was in her future.

Read Maryan’s story.

Motivated to give back

The McNair program’s Albecker was a first-generation college student who benefitted from the presence of a TRIO program.

“I remember my own clumsy journey,” he says. “I was lucky that I had a really good director of my TRIO student services that provided significant support and advocacy that I would not otherwise have had.”

Just as Albecker is motivated to give back to a community that helped him, he says the first-generation college students he sees are focused on making positive impacts with their own careers—usually not by making a lot of money but by seeking helping careers geared toward empowering individuals and communities to better their lives and overcome challenges.

For Garane, Paredes, and Wildenberg, that observation rings true. They agree that their experiences as first-generation college students influenced their college and career choices.

“It’s important to me to continue to serve the people that may be going through the same challenges I went through,” says Paredes.

Though their journeys were different, all three found their places in CEHD and in their larger communities.

“I want all students to know that there’s always going to be bumps in the road,” says Garane. “I really love this college because it helped me a lot.”

Learn more about TRIORashné Jehangir, and the Department of Organizational Leadership and Development.

Story by Ellen Fee | Photos by Erica Loeks | Winter 2018