The transition from high school to university is a big step—and an even bigger one for first-generation students. These are students who are the first in their family to attend university, or the first to attend university here in Canada.

Given that first-generation students are the first of their family to attend university, they may not have developed the same vision or expectations of university life that others may have grasped intuitively.

However, Jennifer Lee, the student success coordinator for the REACH program, says, “First-generation students often bring a great wealth of personal experiences to their studies and to the university campus.”

“They often act as trailblazers, being the first to attend college or university here in Canada. First-generation students bring diversity, a strong work ethic, and amazing resilience to their studies.”

During my first year, as a first-generation student myself, I had very little knowledge about the abundance of resources on campus for such students. Over the last few years, as I’ve continued to progress through UTM, I’ve been astonished to see the Office of Student Transition emerge as a separate department to the Centre of Student Engagement. It meant that demand was high and students were reaching out for help as they entered UTM.

The Office of Student Transition offers a a mentorship program, titled REACH, for upper-year first-generation students.

There are two parts to the program. REACH I [Fall 2016] focuses on upper-year students participating in weekly sessions, on topics such as public speaking, event-planning, grit, and participating in co-curricular activities on campus. During part II [Winter 2017], students are given the opportunity to extend what they have learnt and provide a helping hand to first-year first-generation students.

“[The] REACH weekly sessions [will] focus on holistic skill development […] It is catered to second-year students and beyond, because during this stage in student development, upper-year students are developing competence and purpose in life,” says Lee.

The one-on-one opportunity during REACH II will allow first-year students to request an upper-year student to meet with and speak about any of their concerns. This, according to Lee, will “develop a sense of community amongst first-generation students here on campus.”

Krishna Shah, a fourth-year forensic biology student, is also one of the REACH leaders conducting a REACH seminar series that will run once a week.

Shah believes that holistic skill development is important, as it “helps [students] realize that learning is not all about textbooks and marks; it also involves personal development and growth.”

Vikram Chochinov, a REACH leader and paleontology student, says, “Students don’t often know what [it is that] they don’t know. I have often been asked, ‘What are resources that I may not have heard of [as of yet]?’ ”

Upper-year first-generation students’ most pressing concerns include: applying to graduate school, the most effective ways to study, financial matters regarding OSAP, and what resources are available to them on campus.

Lara Gamgoum, a first-generation UTM student who graduated in May with a degree in biology for health sciences, states that while she loved the environment at UTM, she had a lot of difficulty when it came to registering for courses.

“I wasn’t in Canada at the time, and I had absolutely no idea how and what to enroll in,” she says. “There [were] a lot of facilities [that] I didn’t know about until later. I only found out about things like co-op and work on campus halfway through undergrad. My advice is to get involved as early as possible.”

Common advice from REACH leaders and other first-generation students is to explore the campus. They recommend that students make use of the opportunities available to them, join any one of the student clubs that cover a huge variety of interests, get to know more people, ask about what the university has to offer, talk to professors and TAs, and find a way to balance academic and social lives.

Diala Saab, a third-year psychology major and a first-generation student, explains how easy it was for her to get caught up in academics without giving herself a break.

“I [have now started] to approach professors and TAs for help when [for example], asking for an extension when I absolutely need it or for clarification on the material. I [found] myself looking for a balance between [my] academic and social [life],” says Saab. “Resources are readily available for the sole purpose of helping you, so utilize them. Find things you are passionate about and it will help you find a balance.”

Saab suggests finding a way to release the pressure of academic life by asking for help and having a healthy outlet to release stress.

The REACH program is currently still accepting students, until the end of September.

REACH leaders will also aid students in building a plan to reach their destination and help them understand what it is that they might be required to do in order to achieve it. The program aims to help students build skills that give them the necessary tools upon graduation. The goal is to transfer these tools as they enter graduate school, professional school, or the work force.

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