Going First: A daunting experience

Collin Fellows is not your average Portland State student. As a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and Students First mentor, he devotes his time to researching the differences between first-generation college students and ones whose parents have a college degree.


Fellows knows a bit about the subject first-hand. A first-generation student, Fellows has surmounted many obstacles to get himself to where he is today.


“[There is a] lack of understanding of what it means to be a student,” Fellows said. “I finished high school in ’87 and went straight to Ohio State University and was absolutely overwhelmed.” After one year at Ohio, he dropped out.


There is a 6 percent higher drop out rate for first-generation students from universities. The exact number of first-generation students at PSU is unknown, but now that the Portland State admissions application explicitly asks if the student applying is traditional or first-generation, these students can take advantage of the programs at Portland State designed to help them succeed.


“There are hidden aspects to life at university and many are culturally transmitted,” said Cathy Gordon, project manager for Students First. “So if you have a student whose parents went to university then they have this hidden knowledge. First-generations don’t have that social capital.”


The McNair Scholars Program and Students First aim to close this knowledge gap, focusing their efforts on underrepresented minority groups and first-generation college students.

Entering college is daunting, especially for first-generation students, and Students First provides a mentoring program, discussion groups, and access to a website that helps first-generation students find and utilize campus resources in order to make the transition from high school to university easier.


“Not only do they have to face the challenge of getting acquainted with a new university, but at the same time they also must get acquainted with a school that serves so many different purposes,” explained Jolina Kwong, coordinator for the McNair Scholars.


Things like comprehending a syllabus and learning how to talk to professors outside of the classroom are skills many of us take for granted. Students First “demystifies the process,” Fellows said.


While Students First exposes the hidden aspects of college, McNair provides first-generation students with the experience to pursue advanced degrees. The McNair Scholars Program provides research grants to first-generation students who are driven toward a path to graduate school.


“One way of showing people that they are legitimate and capable is allowing them to do research,” said Dr. Peter Collier, Fellows’ mentor.


These programs encourage first-generation students to acknowledge their own talents and gifts. Dr. Collier wants to “focus more on the assets they bring instead of hammering out what they lack.”


Fellows graduated suma cum laude last summer and is now pursuing a master’s in sociology at Portland State. What will be next for Fellows, recipient of the Outstanding Student in College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Award? Emphatically he lists “Chicago, Iowa, Stanford.” The big-time schools.


It is clear that believes his own maxim, “You deserve to succeed.” And he wants others to believe the same, that first-generation students are entering university with assets and abilities that other students don’t have. “[As a first-generation] you don’t have to work toward your parents’ alma mater. There is none.”