Packed with a variety of activities like day parties, community-building activities, professor-led panel discussions and a “Run With Jim,” Hoos First Celebration Week recognizes more than 3,000 students and 300 faculty members at UVA who are first-generation college students or from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.
The celebration follows Wednesday’s national First-Generation College Celebration Day and is an initiative of Hoos First, a branch of the University of Virginia’s Office of Student Affairs.
The week is designed to recognize students like Nicholas Hayes, who is the first in his family to attend a university.
Hayes hails from a highly competitive and college-oriented high school in Richmond. Despite the school’s rigorous environment, applying for college felt overwhelming; because neither of his parents had attended college, they had no personal experience navigating the process.
“Not having that guidance was really stressful at times,” the first-year College of Arts & Sciences student said. “I wasn’t ever sure if I was doing the right thing, and I wasn’t sure about the whole college process. … Not having that confidence at first, not having that foundation, was a little scary, honestly."
That’s when Hayes came across Hoos First. A pillar of UVA’s 2030 “Great and Good” Strategic Plan, the newest branch of Student Affairs is devoted to creating a sense of belonging among students from limited-income backgrounds and those whose parents did not receive a degree from a four-year university or earned degrees abroad or later in life.
Like Hayes, Michelle Bair, Hoos First’s inaugural director, was the first in her family to attend college. The Pennsylvania native remembers the trials and tribulations of pursuing her multiple degrees.
“I did my undergrad in Virginia,” Bair said. “I was on out-of-state tuition and I didn’t know how to navigate that process. I ended up dropping out after my second year, and it took me some time to come back and finish my bachelor’s degree.”
While her path was not linear, Bair persevered and went on to receive a master’s degree in social work and a doctoral degree in higher education leadership. Today, she leverages her personal experiences to provide academic, personal and financial guidance to students on similar journeys.
Hoos First is a valuable resource to first-generation Wahoos and those from limited-income backgrounds. The initiative promotes financial literacy, academic support and social engagement by creating and connecting students to resources on Grounds.
“I see a lot of myself in the students that I work with,” Bair said. “So I’ve used that as motivation. I think back to when I was an undergrad student [to determine] some of the outlets that I would have liked to have in terms of connection to faculty, staff and resources on campus.”
Hoos First cultivates a community that second-year student Jordan Scott has come to appreciate. As a first-generation student and the eldest sibling of four, getting in touch with Hoos First provided a vital support system.
“Going to a prestigious university means a lot of people came from parents who went to a prestigious university,” Scott said, “Being first-generation makes you feel different immediately.”
A goal of Hoos First is to increase its visibility to UVA’s alumni who were once themselves first-generation and limited-income students, so they can offer guidance to current students.
“I get contacted regularly by alumni anywhere from five to 30 years out who say they wish they had a program like this when they were a student,” Bair said. “They always ask, ‘How can I help?’”
By January, Hoos First is expecting to open a student center on the lower level of Newcomb Hall, complete with study spots, event space and a hand-painted mural. It is intended to help first-generation students find one another and reduce the feelings of isolation.
“I’m excited that there’s going to be a space for us to hang out,” second-year student Nya Battle said. “I’ll be there every day, doing homework and hanging out.”
To learn more about Hoos First, email HoosFirst@virginia.edu.