First-generation student road to CMU


Courtesy of Jacqueline Roman.

Jacqueline Roman, a senior at Central Michigan University, is becoming the first person to graduate college in her family. Roman is in her last year at CMU and is currently applying to graduate school, and is considering CMU, Grand Valley State University, Western University and Indiana University.

She studies communication sciences and disorders with double minors in French and leadership and a certificate in English and Spanish translation.

“I’m barely a sophomore and I don’t even know how to run this,” Roman said. “It was a lot of trial and error.”

During Roman’s high school years at West Ottawa High School in Holland, she didn’t know about advanced placement credits or international baccalaureate program classes.

“I was not really prompted ... to AP classes, IB class or even dual-enrollment classes," Roman said. “It’s ... forced on those who had previous experiences or like parents who ... know how to explain that process to their children.”

Roman also had to simultaneously translate to Spanish to her parents so they knew why Roman was taking these classes while learning it herself.

When first applying to colleges, Roman joined TRIO Upward Bound at Hope College and was part of a nonprofit organization called Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP) for three years. TRIO Upward Bound is a program at Grand Valley State University that helps high school students from underserved backgrounds get their college degree.

LAUP helped Roman with tutoring, writing college essays, college visits, volunteer hours, finding scholarships and getting homework done.

“If I didn't have those programs I think, honestly, it would've been more hectic,” Roman said. “I worked my butt off trying to get most of my homework done, so I can get most of my questions answered, so I can help around the house doing household chores and (translating) documents and getting bills paid for my parents.”

“My family (was) very happy and took pictures (of my acceptance letters) and saved the letters,” Roman said. “I was so happy and pretty excited and it was a powerful moment. 

"I didn't expect to (go to college). ... The idea (was) to go to high school, graduate and that’s it.”

She recalls her younger sister, Giselle, getting emotional and explaining how she was going to follow in her footsteps.

“As first-generation students, I didn’t really plan a lot and didn't really think that far into the future,” Giselle said. “So when my sister informed (me) that she was going to Central Michigan, my plans were sped up.”

Roman remembers her sister, Giselle, being emotional and shocked.

When the time came to choose a school, Roman picked CMU for the scholarship opportunities and the community. She had competed for and earned a Leadership Advancement Scholarship.

“(CMU is) not too big or not too small,” Roman said. “And it was kind of away from home, two hours away and I can be independent while also being close to home.”

Coming to CMU, Roman saw how different it was from Holland, where it was the majority of Hispanic people at West Ottawa High School. At CMU Roman saw how small the Hispanic and Brown communities, are but how close they are.

Challenges of being in college 

Roman wants to support her family. She found it difficult being away because she couldn’t be there to translate documents for her parents and be the support to her younger siblings when it came to homework.

Toward the end of the first semester, Roman found herself facing homesickness and missing the tastes of home.

“It was hard finding my ingredients on campus or even here in Mount Pleasant,” Roman said.

Another big worry for Roman was how much she could express her culture. She didn’t want people thinking she was weird for playing Hispanic music and she didn’t know how people were going to react to her.

“It was a worry for me,” Roman said. “How loud can I play it (while living in the dorms) and what type of genres can I play?”

Listening to music and Facetime calling her family kept Roman going, along with monthly visits when her family would bring familiar food and gifts.

“My siblings would give me handwritten letters and I would tape them up on my wall,” Roman said. “Every single one of them has helped out. Even my little brother, having his painting from art class that is hung up on my wall is helping me.”

Roman met Prof. Nicholas Barone in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department during her junior year. She joined his research team, and Barone wrote her recommendation letters and encouraged her to learn more about the major.  

Roman reached out to Barone and joined his research team. Because of that relationship, Barone wrote recommendation letters and helped her learn more about her major.

A system of support

Roman's family has been her biggest supporters, but some faculty at CMU have helped along the way.

“I know my sister has told me that when our parents call her she always says that it's very helpful to hear our parents tell her that she can do it and that they are proud of her,” Giselle Roman said.

Giselle is in her second year at Michigan State University studying biology.

“She’s always had the perseverance to look for help when she needed it,” Giselle said, "whether that was resources or whatever she needed. I was confident she could adapt well to her new place in Central Michigan.”

The advice Giselle gave to families that have their child or sibling going off to college is to be patient and to give them reminders that they are there for support.

“They should also learn to adapt to have a child in college because they are also learning,” Giselle said. "It’s a journey for both the student and the parent.” 

James Span Jr, executive director of student inclusion and diversity, at CMU, said there are programs dedicated to first-generation students, and they are are personalized for the student that wants help.

That support could look like study groups, focus groups, professional development and meeting with first-generation students.

“The reality of (making connections) is the peer-to-peer connection can go a very long way,” Span said.

He also said that there was talk within the Division of Student Affairs about creating a first-generation center.

“We’re going through a reorganization right now within the division ... and we're starting to see some areas that warrant attention,” Span said.

The center, when created, will be focused on helping students with: information regarding student employment, academic recourse, mental health and academic success.

When it came to helping first-generation students, Renee Watson wants them to be able to reach out for help.

“Let them know that we were prepared for you,” Watson said. “We’re not shocked you're here."

Navigating college applications and scholarships

Roman remembers being emotional when she got her first acceptance letter.

In 2020, CMU data shows Hispanic and Latino that are degree-seeking for the first time in the first year is 113 students. Compared to 2023, that number is 99 students. 

In 2020, CMU data showed for degree-seeking undergraduates in (that is including first time first year) is 690 students. In 2023, that number is 543 students.

In 2020, CMU data showed the total undergraduates for 2020 (that are both degree and non-degree seeking) is 694 students. For 2023, that number is 553 students.

Between the fall semester of 2020 and 2023, the number of first-generation, degree-seeking students has decreased. 

The total number of first-generation students that are entering their first year, for the 2020 fall semester is 2,088. And the total number of first-generation undergraduates is 13,048. 

And the total number of first-generation students in the fall semester of 2023 is 2,044. The number for first-generation undergraduate students, for the fall semester, is 10,079.

The census data for Hispanic and Latino people in Mount Pleasant is 5.8% for 2023.

For the census data of Hispanic and Latino students that went to West Ottawa Public School is 39.1% according to the West Ottawa High School Campus.

Roman wants the students to take pride in attending the university.

“You worked and put that effort in,” Roman said “So take credit for the effort you put in.”