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My Student Experience: Graduate Student Jessica Riddell Aims to Increase Support for First-Generation Graduate Students Through New Organization

When Jessica Riddell, a graduate student in the NC State College of Education’s college counseling and student development program, came to NC State to earn their master’s degree, it was their first time living on a college campus. One day, they noticed a group of high school students being led around the university. Only later did Riddell, a first-generation college student who commuted to classes while earning their bachelor’s degree, learn why — it had been a college tour, which Riddell had never experienced before.

“Even as a graduate student, I’m still learning things that I didn’t know as an undergraduate student that tend to be common knowledge for continuing-generation students,” Riddell said. 

The desire to help first-generation graduate students better navigate the college experience inspired Riddell to form the College of Education’s First-Generation Graduate Student Organization. While student organizations for first-generation undergraduate students at NC State already existed, Riddell wanted to create something tailored to the graduate student experience.

“There’s a misconception that once you graduate from undergrad as a first-generation student, you’re kind of caught up, and so by graduate school, you should be on the same playing field,” Riddell said. “But that’s often not the case and, with graduate school, it brings a whole new array of different challenges.”

Riddell was also inspired by conversations they had with Associate Teaching Professor Angie Smith, who, along with Distinguished Professor Lance Fusarelli, serve as an advisor for the organization. 

“As a first-generation college student, I often struggled to find my way through my undergraduate and graduate experiences,” Smith said. “I learned there were so many aspects of college life that I simply had not been exposed to before entering the college setting. My hope is to give back and share any information that may be helpful to students who may be going through similar experiences.”

One of the first steps Riddell took when starting the organization was to send out a survey to learn what other first-generation students wanted from it. Riddell’s goal was to be as inclusive as possible and to make the organization a home for both doctoral and master’s students, as well as those enrolled in other colleges and programs across the university.

“Even though we’re all first-generation, we’re going to come in with different experiences and different knowledge,” Riddell said. “And so being able to come together and help one another is definitely a positive thing.”

That’s part of what attracted Jennifer Mann, a Ph.D. student in the Teacher Education and Learning Sciences Literacy and English Language Arts Education program area of study, to the organization. 

“I was looking for a group of people who could understand my background without me having to explain it,” Mann said. “I was looking also for examples of scholars who successfully made it through. I needed to see them so that I could envision success for myself.”

The group’s first two meetings, held in April over Zoom, provided that opportunity for its new members. 

“It was a special, emotional moment that all of us got to share and understand that we’re in the same boat,” said Monica Meza, who is earning her master’s degree in higher education administration

Smith said the opportunity for students to build community is a meaningful first step.

“The organization is important because it is tapping into a population that could benefit from connecting with one another,” Smith said. “Graduate school can be isolating in many ways. Creating a ‘space,’ either in person or virtually, for students to meet one another and connect on topics that are relevant to them can be useful and offer long-term, positive benefits.”

So far, the group has discussed potentially unfamiliar higher education lingo, funding for research and travel, and ways to support other first-generation students. For the group’s third meeting, they were joined by Emily Hoey, who works in NC State’s Career Development Center, and discussed how to manage imposter syndrome, the feeling that one is unqualified or unworthy of their position. 

Meza said it was affirming to hear other students openly discuss their struggles.

“When I saw them [sharing], I realized it’s a common thing,” Meza said. “It’s something that we share, and it’s not just me.”

Riddell said their time in the college counseling and student development program has helped prepare them to build a place for first-generation students to come together. 

“It’s working with people and being able to facilitate understanding and community without being in an area of judgment,” Riddell said.

Eventually, Riddell hopes the organization will be able to partner with groups that support undergraduate first-generation students and advocate for the needs of the first-generation students on campus as a whole.

“Knowing that I’m making a difference in students’ lives is important for me,” Riddell said “And that’s the biggest goal for me — how can I best help other students? How can I bring in what they’re asking for?”

Just by starting the organization, Riddell has already created a place for first-generation graduate students, like Mann, to call home.

“I immediately feel a kinship with people in this organization,” Mann said. “I also feel a sense of responsibility for helping them if I have institutional knowledge or know-how. I feel a sense of community with them.”

Smith said that sense of community comes with a lot of potential.

“The ideas already generated are exciting and the possibilities are endless,” Smith said. “I am looking forward to the opportunity of connecting current first-generation college students with faculty, staff, administrators and anyone who identifies as a first-generation college student. We can learn so much from one another. The leaders on the board are committed to supporting one another and all first-generation college students. Given this care and intentionality, I think the organization will continue to flourish and thrive.

Riddell’s long-term goal is to one day create a center at NC State that specifically serves first-generation undergraduates and graduate students. But for now, Riddell is happy to make a difference through the College of Educations’ First-Generation Graduate Student Organization. 

“It’s been kind of awesome to think that it went from just an idea to now it’s an actual organization.” Riddell said.” I’m excited about where it’s going to go.”