Supporting first in family students

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Bulletin delves into the First in Family campaign, which supports students who are the first person in their family to attend university.

It can be a daunting experience to attend university if no one in your family or support network has had prior experience of it. Often, students in this position may need additional support. The University has a wide range of resources to help first-in-family students to thrive, and has launched a new campaign to highlight how many people across the University can understand students’ experiences and are there to support them on their journey.

Through the campaign, many staff who were also the first in their family to go to university are showing their support by choosing to wear badges with messages like ‘First in Family and here to help’ or ‘First in Family and ready to listen’.

Colm’s experiences

Colm Harmon, Vice-Principal Students, was the first person in his family to attend university. Stiliyana Ilieva, a student at the University, spoke to Colm about his experiences and why he’s backing the campaign.

When did you realise you wanted to go to university?

I’m not sure I could pinpoint it exactly. My parents left school at 12 as you had to pay to go to high school in Ireland at that time. My mum worked as a dressmaker, and she was frustrated at not being able to do more like become a journalist, which was her dream. So I guess neither of my parents, while they had a big influence on me and valued education, had a sense of what university was or could advise me on what to do. It was really down to my teachers, who steered me in that direction and to aim high with the kinds of institutions I applied for.

Stiliyana Ilieva, a student at the University, spoke to Colm Harmon about his experience as the first in his family to go to university

What impact did it have that you didn’t have any family members who’d been to university to guide you?

It leaves an incredible amount for you to deal with and navigate your way through. There was no brother or sister, mother or father, or even cousins in my case who could say “that is entirely normal”, “the first semester can be tough”, or “tutorials are weird” and things like that. So you have to mature very quickly.

I worked all the way through to pay my fees. I used to work night shifts at a newspaper and go to college during the day.

You learn to ask. I relied on staff for support and guidance, and they were influential to me. I always say to our students that the staff at the University, whether your lecturer or your Student Adviser, are here for you, so do talk to them.

Did you face any challenges before you came to university?

The most difficult part was getting in. If you go to an average school, not the ones where they typically get better grades, there may not be that performance culture or peer motivation. There could be lots of people around you with very different challenges in their lives, and trying to study and not get distracted in that context can be difficult. Out of around 200 of us in my peer group, about five of us went on to higher education or study.

I’m an economist now but I didn’t actually apply to do Economics. I applied to do Architecture and didn’t get in. Architecture’s loss or economics’ loss – I’m not the one to decide! But as it happened, I thrived, even if it took me a while to find my feet.

What was your experience of university like?

I didn’t enjoy it at first. I got pretty close to dropping out. I got two buses to campus for 9am, went to my lectures during the day and then worked at the newspaper from evening till midnight. I wasn’t in any particular ‘gang’ or doing all those things like going out, debating and doing sports. What kept me going was some of my key lecturers – I had no frame of reference, so I definitely had a bit of imposter syndrome. But they could see I was doing maybe better than I thought I was. And I made some really good friends early on who were sitting alone in lectures too and so we gravitated to each other. Or perhaps they just wanted my lecture notes! So I got there in the end.

What words of encouragement would you give to ‘first in family’ students?

First of all, don’t feel alone. There are a lot of us – me, many of the academics and other University staff, and many of your fellow students. You’re not actually in such a small minority, and that’s important to realise.

Secondly, of course, we’re not your parents, but the staff working here can provide advice and a listening ear. If you’re looking to talk to someone about more than how you’re doing in your studies, there are lots of people around you willing to chat things through and help you realise that your future self can be whatever you want.

The third thing I would say is don’t feel surprised if you are feeling – and this is my favourite word – ‘discombobulated’. If you are feeling that sense of detachment or confusion, don’t let it fester into something bad. We’ve all had that experience and we can help with understanding it and navigating it – so please reach out.

Support the campaign

Badges are available to staff who wish to support the campaign.

Any staff member who chooses to wear a ‘first in family’ badge has not taken on a formal role. It simply means you are happy to be a role model, a listening ear, or simply a friendly face for students in this position.

There are four badges available with messages including ‘here to help’, ‘here for you’, ‘ready to listen’ and ‘ready to talk’.

If you’re interested in sourcing a badge for yourself or members of your team, please get in touch with Lauren Harrison, Senior Project Officer: