As part of our celebration of first-generation students and their experiences, the Office of the Provost presents a series of reflections from first generation faculty and staff.
Shondra Marshall, PhD is the program coordinator for the Diversity Research Network.

Did your parents help you go to college? 

My parents were extremely supportive of my college pursuit. They were active in supporting myself and my brothers in this way. My parents believed in education and actually sent my siblings and me to private parochial school. For me, this was through the PK-8 years. 

Shondra Marshall and her familyIn my household I did not know of another way after high school other than pursuing college; I was socialized to pursue higher education. I do remember in high school the counselor assigned to the M’s (Marshall is my last name) was helpful, however my mother told me how to follow up with her and my mother gave me questions to ask to obtain information. At that time information about college applications or college visitation wasn’t shared widely. I also had a woman at my local church who had her PhD and worked at University of Michigan (Flint) and she told my mother, “When Shondra gets to college, make sure she pursues the McNair program.” I am still in contact with this woman and she is my mentor. At the time she was an university professor. 

I also was involved with a program which was almost an affiliate of the Commitment to Service Program which helped us as students think strategically about our future. I was able to be involved with the high school KCP program where I was able to meet other students across the state who had an interest in attending college. The year I attended program we lodged overnight at the University of Michigan. My mother would always tell me, “Learn as much as you can from every person you encounter,” so I can remember different guiding words and almost pieced together my plan of action! My village surrounded me and helped me.

What were your first moments or months on campus like? Are there any specific memories that stand out?

The first day I arrived my parents moved me in and I remember taking a nap after they left. I woke up in tears because I knew I “couldn’t go home,” not because I literally couldn’t but because I wanted to fight against all odds. Because of bridge programs I remember my first months as being excited but opened up to a whole new world. During one of the bridge programs I was involved with I was taught several “survival” techniques which I remember being useful in my first few semesters on campus. I also saw how easy it was to not remain as a Black student. A classmate told me he had to move out by December because his family couldn’t afford the student bill. I remember attending my first Black Power Rally and really enjoyed this event.


How did your parents prepare you for college? How did you prepare?

I participated in several programs while in high school to get prepared, attended optional college presentations and also as an incoming freshman I had the opportunity to participate in what I would identify as bridge programs.


Why did you decide to go to college?

I did not know of another way to obtain a living for myself. No other option was discussed.


As a first-gen student, how was the application and admission process? How did you navigate this?

I applied when applications were hard copies (not electronic), therefore this process was challenging. I had to make sure to ask for an application from my high school counselor. My mother checked over everything I put on the application. I spent lots of hours after school or before trying to use time in the library to determine what to do. I actually got accepted into my alma mater from an on-site admission program at my school. I did not believe I was actually accepted so I waited to share with my parents (I felt I needed a USPS mailed letter of acceptance). I was accepted into several schools but I was extremely confused on how to sign up for a meal plan and my classes. The orientation notice did indicate we would cover how to make these selections, which was helpful. I kept checking our mail and I was told by current students who to work with in Financial Aid to help me each semester. I requested my parents to come up at the beginning of my first two academic years so we could determine the best options. Unfortunately, I was unaware of scholarships so I have a great deal of student loan debt. I kept a folder, put important submission dates on my calendar and kept a check list handy to help me remain organized.


What were your first semesters at school like? What surprised you the most?

I experienced racism my first semesters … I also was surprised at the pace of college courses and I really liked the idea of a syllabus. The class sizes surprised to me. I had a class with 400 peers…I knew if I was not intentional I could possibly get lost.


What challenges did you run into as a first-gen student?

I did not know how to navigate the system at all so in some ways I suffered and missed opportunities (like study abroad). It took me a while to understand/decipher the academic calendar and the tasks I needed to complete each fall or each semester so I would not be disenrolled were challenging. The Black community was small but mighty and I recognized some systemic challenges were easier to manage with the camaraderie of other Black students. Academically I struggled in some of my math courses and I had to eventually retake the class. It also took me 5 years to graduate and I do not understand why it took that long, however I am not sure how my advisor played a role in this.


How long did it take you to get acclimated to university life?

I do not think I ever felt acclimated however I did have a better understanding by the end of my sophomore year. I also changed my major within that timeframe.


Were there any systems of support for first-gen students at your school?

I was involved with the McNair program, however I do not recall there being any systems of support for first-gen students specifically. If there were I was unaware.


As a first-gen student, what perspectives do you have that other non-first-gen students might not?

I am extremely compassionate to other people who might not know what to do when they get to college. I believe I have insight on areas that impact first gen students vs. non-first-gen students. I understand resources must be shared through multiple channels, on multiple platforms, multiple times. If there is no response this does not equate to laziness or disinterest but rather possibly a component of being unaware. There is a need to take time to explain how the resources could help. I also understand this concept on a broader community-level scale. I also intrinsically understand the struggle therefore I could speak to the types of resources are needed based off of what I experienced personally.


Looking back, what’s one thing you wish you could tell your younger self at the beginning of your college career?

Apply for scholarships continually (throughout my academic career) and select a major that fuels your passion (not for the salary).


Do you have any advice for other first-gen students?

Ask questions and do not take “no” for an answer. Find your point person in every office you frequent. Get involved in programs/RSO to build your sense of community. This takes you leaving your comfort zone to build out. Learn how to be comfortable with initiating a conversation and following up. Make sure to have a mentor who can help you navigate college. Sustain and keep this mentor/mentee relationship and establish a check-in method. I met with my mentor on campus at least once a semester. I asked for assistance when I needed help (I had to say something).  Attend events and programs which might be focused on the college life to learn as much you can on navigating the system.