The mountains they face

Casey Zadinski didn’t have a choice in the matter.

“When I was growing up, my dad basically told me, ‘You’re going to college,’” she said.  

Zadinski, who was raised in a single-parent household, is the first in her family to go to college, qualifying her as a first-generation college student.

After getting straight-A’s throughout high school, Zadinski knew she could handle the academic intensity of a university. But as the first person in her family to go to college, even the application process was, in a word, “terrifying.”

“Finding colleges, looking at colleges was not a process that I really understood,” Zadinski said. “I had no idea how to approach it.”

Instead of relying on her dad or anyone else in her family, Zadinski had to have an old friend help her with the process of applying for schools. That friend ended up taking her on a tour of Waynesburg University. A little under 45 minutes away from home, Zadinski said Waynesburg was a safe option for her.

“It ended up being the only school I applied to,” Zadinski said.

Despite the success she had with applying, Zadinski faced other challenges while coming to school, like knowing what to bring to her dorm room on move-in day.

“I really had no idea what to expect from living in a campus dorm,” she said. “I didn’t know what to bring — I didn’t even think to bring stuff to wash my dishes. It was little tiny stuff like that that I didn’t think about.”

Overall, upon entering Waynesburg, Zadinski felt like an outsider.

“It was as if there was a mountain standing between me and my degree,” she said. “Everyone else takes that basic knowledge for granted.”

 

New territory

The definition of a first-generation college student varies from institution to institution. At Waynesburg University, incoming students are deemed “first-generation” if their parents have no post-secondary education at all, meaning they only have a high school diploma, GED or no degree.

Shari Payne, vice president for enrollment, has seen many first-gen students come through Waynesburg within her role, and she understands how scary the process can seem.

“First generation students come in with a different set of experiences, expectations and skill-sets, and I do not mean that in a negative way,” Payne said. “When a student comes from a family where a parent has not gone to college, sometimes navigating the system is all new.”

Payne said Waynesburg collects data on students during the application process to determine whether or not they fit in the first-generation category.

“The reason we ask this information is to get a sense of how much we need to assist them in the admissions process,” Payne said. “We’re a small institution; we do things on an individual level.”

While the question on the application process is optional, 40 percent of last year’s freshman class is considered to be first-generation.  

Payne said throughout the recruiting and application process, the admissions counselors don’t do anything specifically to target first-generation students.

“When we go out recruiting, there is nothing that says this population of students is first-generation,” Payne said. “We have information about college-going rates at particular high schools, and we really try to be representative in the way we recruit in the schools and the fairs.”

Regardless of the lack of targeting students who are new to the concept of college, Payne said the admissions counselors are trained to offer any additional assistance the student might need.

“While we don’t have any specifically targeted resources, the way that we deploy our admissions counselors really accounts for some of that level,” she said. “When our counselors make telephone calls, they look at things in their background. It informs the way our admissions counselors relay information.”

 

Financial fears

For Zadinski, the most frightening part of going to college for the first time was trying to understand the concept of financial aid.

“Yeah, my dad had no idea what a ‘FAFSA’ was,” Zadinski said. “Going through the FAFSA was literally gut-wrenching, like, ‘If I mess up, I’m gonna go to prison.’”

A majority of what the Office of Financial Aid at Waynesburg University does is to help students get as much financial aid as possible. Matt Stokan, director of financial aid, said he is always happy to help students who take the initiative to ask for assistance.

“We can only help those who come to us for help,” Stokan said. “If a student needs help, and they don’t stop by, we can’t be much help to them.”

When it comes to first-generation students, Stokan said coming in for help is even more important because, like Zadinski, they often don’t have anyone else to turn to.

“To me, I’ve been [working in financial aid] for 30 years, so it’s second-nature to me. I know what all the acronyms are for,” Stokan said. “For a first-gen student, this can be very overwhelming.”

In terms of knowing which students to reach out to, Stokan said he relies heavily on Admissions.

“Oftentimes when a new student comes to Admissions and falls in love with the place, their first question becomes, ‘How am I going to pay for this place?’ After that, they’ll come up here to us and meet with us and we’ll go over their options,” Stokan said.

Stokan said first-generation students often need special attention during these meetings.

“We literally have to sit down with them on one of our computers, and we show them the website they need to go to,” Stokan said. “We go step-by-step for the FAFSA, entrance counseling, verification worksheets. [The people who work in our office] will sit there and hold their hand through the whole process.”

 

Lifting the load

For new students at Waynesburg University, the first semester can seem overwhelming. Payne said she has the first semester broken down into several phases which she calls “high-risk periods.” These are times when new students, especially first-gen students, are most likely to feel overwhelmed.

Some of these high-risk periods, according to Payne, include freshman orientation, the fourth week of the semester when exams and grades start to roll out, midterms, registering for classes and finals week.

Payne said the university has programming in place to help make the transition easier.

“Some of the programs that we have throughout orientation and the first year are really geared to helping students adjust,” Payne said. “It’s definitely an adjustment.”

Payne applauds the efforts of the Counseling Center and the Center for Student Success and Disability Services for their student outreach.

She also said there are several advantages for first-generation students at a small campus like Waynesburg.

“If you went to a 20,000+ university, you wouldn’t have an advisor who knows you,” Payne said. “You wouldn’t have a system that if you’re not doing well, someone will tell you to get tutoring. It’s personalized attention.”

 

The ripple effect

Zadinski, a now-senior psychology major, said she has fully adjusted to college life after getting through her first semester. Not only is she thriving academically, but she also serves as a leader in campus activities and has made several friends along the way.

This success story is the goal of Payne and everyone in the Admissions Office as they recruit students of all walks, including first-generation students.

“When I am admitting an applicant, I really think that person has a good chance at success at Waynesburg,” she said. “We think they’re all strong.”

This upcoming May, Zadinski will make her final descent down the “mountain” of higher education she once faced. As she moves her tassel from left to right during the commencement ceremony, the labels will fall off for good.