The Road to Success: Supporting First Generation College Students through High School and Beyond

As part of the Challenge Scholars initiative, Tracy Benjamin serves as College and Career Coordinator at Union High School. We recently caught up with Tracy to learn more about how she helps high schoolers who might be first in their family to consider college or vocational training prepare for post-secondary success.

How do you help Union High School students prepare for college?

As the College and Career Coordinator at Union High School, my goal is to get students into a college and career mindset as soon as possible. It's crucial for students to think about their college and career goals early so they can plan and prepare to get there. And, part of my job is to help students understand that every semester counts for getting into college or vocational school and receiving scholarships, starting with freshman year!

Another important role of mine is helping students learn what kinds of questions they should be asking as they make important college decisions. If a student is a first-generation college student, they might not be having conversations at home about whether the college they’re looking at has the academic program they’re interested in, what the student to faculty ratio is, or what kinds of support services are available.

What extra supports do first-generation college students find particularly helpful?

Filling out the FAFSA for the first time can be an extremely intimidating task, so it’s helpful to walk with students and their parents through this process as much as possible, whether that means offering a FAFSA night at school, talking about the process in class, or assisting students and their parents with questions they have along the way.

The financial support is always very important. We publicize several scholarships here at Union and there are many community organizations like Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Hispanic Center that help make college as affordable as possible.

In what ways do you think Challenge Scholars is opening doors for first generation college students? 

The financial piece of a college or vocational education can be a huge deterrent for students to continue their education, especially first-generation college students. Challenge Scholars has the power to lift that financial burden. The stipulations of Challenge Scholars require students to develop the skills necessary to be academically successful through college and beyond.

What advice do you have for students who might be the first in their family to consider college? 

Don't be intimidated, and ask lots of questions! College can be scary, especially if you’re the first person in your family to attend, but it opens the door to so many opportunities that you deserve! Deciding to go to college is a huge decision, so ask as many questions as possible along the way. Then you’ll know you’re making the best decisions to reach your goals!