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Julia Sorcinelli

July 12, 2012
Bloomington, Indiana --

“It’s hard because I’m so stressed. I know my mom and dad will always be there for me, but they don’t understand this. I can’t talk to my family because I’m literally the first-generation. Nobody has attended college so they really don’t know what to expect. What stresses me out is that my family expects me to do well. They expect me to succeed. I’ve never failed them. And if I fail them now, I would just be disappointing myself.”

Those comments from a first-generation student sum up the challenge facing all of higher education. A new report authored by Julia Sorcinelli offers valuable suggestions to help Indiana University’s regional campuses reduce the stress level and increase the success level for students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Sorcinelli, a 2011 Master of Public Affairs graduate of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington and a SPEA VISTA Fellow, offered IU’s Board of Trustees a first look at her conclusions when they met in June.

“This has been an incredible learning and professional development experience,” Sorcinelli said. “My research has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges first-generation students face and the programs and support services that contribute to their success.”

In her assignment at IU’s Office of the Executive Vice President for University Regional Affairs, Planning, and Policy, Sorcinelli conducted a year-long research study on first-generation college students in support of the Blueprint for Student Attainment, an initiative to increase student success on IU’s six regional campuses (IU East, IU Kokomo, IU Northwest, IU South Bend, IU Southeast, and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne). As part of her research, Sorcinelli interviewed the stressed-out student as well as 20 other first-generation students along with administrators and staff at two universities. She also analyzed data collected from the institutions and their websites.

Among her key conclusions:

  • “Being the first in the family to attend college can place a tremendous amount of pressure and stress on first-generation students as they try to fulfill their family’s expectations.”
  • “First-generation students often struggle to navigate a college culture and campus that can be completely foreign to them.”
Sorcinelli said, more than most students, first-generation students must learn how to develop academic, study, and time management skills as well balance class work, jobs and home responsibilities while finding a way to pay their tuition and living expenses.

A first step for Indiana University would be adopting a system-wide definition of first-generation students so that data can be uniform across the campuses. Additionally, Sorcinelli offered other recommendations for IU’s six regional campuses:
  • Foster a sense of pride in being a first-generation student.
  • Connect incoming first-generation students and their families to helpful programs and support services.
  • Develop strategies to improve the retention and graduation rates of first-generation students.
  • Make existing programs and support services more responsive to what is a diverse population of students.
  • Introduce first-generation students with faculty, staff and administrators who were themselves first-generation students.
Sorcinelli plans to include those recommendations in her final report to John Applegate, IU executive vice president for University Regional Affairs, Planning, and Policy.

As she studies how first-generation students learn, Sorcinelli is learning as well. As a participant in the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program she is spending a post-graduate year dedicated to fighting poverty and poverty-related problems.

“Participating in the SPEA VISTA Fellows program has inspired me to work with a nonprofit organization or higher education institution that is dedicated to enhancing the success of nontraditional students,” she said.