This year marks the fifth anniversary of the University of Richmond’s Spider Firsts program, which started because of an observation. 

Lisa Miles, the head coordinator, noticed throughout the years that many first-generation college students arrived to campus on move-in day without their parents, she said. 

“I knew a little bit about the term first-generation at the time,” Miles said. “Brown, UCLA and others had started similar programs, so it was Richmond’s time to step up."

Alarmed at the high dropout rates of first-generation college students, leaders at UR and other colleges across the United States have created programs to support first-generation students to close the graduation gap between them and their classmates. 

As the first to attend college in their family, first-generation college students are less likely to graduate compared with classmates whose parents graduated from college. First-generation students are more likely to drop out because they often have less understanding of how to navigate campus culture, access resources and face psychological challenges such as imposter syndrome — doubting whether they even have what it takes to belong and succeed.  

First-generation students who come from low-income backgrounds may worry about how they will fit in with their classmates. 

“There was a real need for a program to address students from this background, but we hadn’t been addressing it," Miles said. 

She mulled over the idea and decided to launch Spider Firsts in 2013.

Miles serves as the head coordinator, and sophomore Kayla Wise works as a student assistant for the program. 

They offer a variety of services to first-generation students across all grades. The program starts with an annual dinner for students and faculty members. Spider Firsts also hosts Monthly Mingles, where students gather on a Friday each month, and underclassmen meet and talk with upperclassmen about their experiences. 

Spider Firsts sponsors students to attend the annual Alliance for Low-Income and First-Generation Narrative (ALIGN) Conference and arranges special sessions on career development for students. 

For the future, Miles wants to develop a mentoring program by matching first-generation alumni with first-generation upperclassmen who are looking for jobs, she said. 

“Oftentimes, first-generation students don’t have a broad social network of professional contacts compared to others,” she said. 

Although Miles created Spider Firsts for students, the amount of support she gained from faculty members amazed her, she said. First-generation faculty members attend programs to let students know that they’re here for them. 

“What I notice from the faculty is they’re grateful to have their own experiences acknowledged,” Miles said. “First-generation didn’t really exist as a term during their college years.”  

When Miles created official stickers for the program, more than 100 faculty members requested them. 

“We wanted something official to recognize them and their success,” she said. “Students have told me they’re not ashamed of their status and want to be recognized for their accomplishments.” 

Junior Fatema Al Darii from Oman is the first in her family to attend college. 

Al Darii said her family members and others believed she would attend college because of her ability to pick up English quickly. Before coming to Richmond, she attended a boarding school in New Jersey for two years. 

“Being first-generation was lonely,” she said. “I didn’t know how to communicate my experiences in Arabic with my parents, let alone English.” 

She said her first mistake was not asking for help. 

“I was so used to being alone about figuring things out,” she said. 

Al Darii said she was thankful for Spider Firsts for connecting her with other students.

Wise, the Spider Firsts student assistant, and her siblings are all the first in their family to attend college.

“I had no idea how to apply for colleges,” she said. “I had to learn from my siblings who had gone to college before me.” 

Wise said she was thankful that Spider Firsts had provided meals during breaks since the dining hall operated on limited hours and closed during those dates.

“Spider Firsts has dinners and provides grocery gift cards for students who can’t go home during break,” she said. “It helped me feel less homesick and supported.”

Contact features writer Sunny Lim at sunny.lim@richmond.edu.

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