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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
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Published June 13, 2024

First-generation students of color develop connections despite hardships

As the University celebrates First Gen week, some students have to navigate their identities of being a first-generation student and a student of color simultaneously.
Image by Shalom Berhane
A First Gen Week event outside of The Union on Nov. 10, 2023.

University of Minnesota students are experiencing the intersections of their identities as first-generation students of color during First Generation Week. 

The Office of Undergraduate Education and the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE) hosted events the week of Nov. 6 to celebrate First Generation Week. 

Hanad Mohamoud is a third-year political science University student and said he chose to get a college education because of his mom, whom he views as an inspiration. His mom is from Somalia and currently lives in Minnesota. 

“She got her master’s degree and she paved the way for all of that as a refugee from Somalia,” Mohamoud said. “I feel immensely grateful to my mom and everything she’s done for me, so I would just like to pay back.” 

Mohamoud, who transferred to the University from its Duluth campus, said the Twin Cities campus community is generally accepting of students of color and he has yet to experience microaggressions or rude language, a contrast to his experience at the Duluth campus. 

“It felt isolating not because of my identity, but that it was far away from all my friends and I didn’t enjoy my time there,” Mohamoud said. “I was mostly friends with white people, but I also had one friend who was half Ethiopian and half Filipino.” 

For Tas Olad, having multicultural student organizations helps her connect with other students of color. Despite being a first-year and first-gen student at St. Thomas University, Olad said she comes to the University often to attend events held by multicultural organizations. 

Since St. Thomas is a smaller university compared to the University of Minnesota, she said she loves that students are able to meet up and attend student events. St. Thomas has their own multicultural student organizations, but only students who go there attend their events, according to Olad. 

“The U is a great place for you to get to know new people and then be able to embrace your culture, but also learn about other people’s cultures,” Olad said “That’s what I really like about going to these events.” 

Some students, like third-year University first-gen student Lilian Nguyen, use their time at the University to begin to connect with their culture. 

“I’m in touch with the Vietnamese culture, but not as touched with it outside of home,” Nguyen said. “So on campus, I always make sure to reach out to the community, such as the Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota (VSAM).” 

Nguyen did an internship on the VSAM board and helped manage their annual Tet show, which she said has helped her de-stress and connect with her culture. 

“College is a very stressful time for everyone, and meeting people who get you and connect with you on some level, whether that’s being first gen, being BIPOC, being Asian or being Vietnamese,” Nguyen said. “It’s very nice because you get to make more deeper connections because you share this similar experience or values.” 

Although there may not be as much diversity at St. Thomas, the university does make an effort to acknowledge its first-generation students of color, according to Olad. She said St. Thomas’ first-year class this year is the biggest and most diverse class and students are required to take three diversity and inclusion courses. 

“Here at St. Thomas, we have something called ‘Proud to Be First,’ where every day, a different first-generation student is highlighted and their story is told,” Olad said. “No matter how hard administrators and school faculty try, it has to come from a place of compassion and for you actually caring about the students.” 

Nguyen said it is sometimes hard for her to speak up in class due to having classes where her classmates are predominately white, but she still makes the best of the situation. 

“The people who speak out more is the white majority, and it’s kind of intimidating,” Nguyen said. “I’m more of an introvert, so it’s kind of hard for me to voice my opinion, especially if white people are mainly speaking.” 

Olad said being a first-gen student means being able to get the support she needs from faculty and other school officials, which she struggles to get sometimes due to the difficulty of getting in contact with people. 

“Sometimes I get frustrated that there isn’t enough resources available for me, because I’m like, ‘Well, I’m paying for it, so where are they,’ Olad said. “You kind of have to rely on other first-gen students who are older and paved the way for you.” 

Olad added her advisor registered her for classes for the fall semester, but now she plans on meeting with another first-gen student who is in the same major as her to plan out classes for spring semester. 

“Within the culture here, the students help each other, so it’s not like I’m alone,” Olad said. “There are older students who want to help me and tell me, ‘Don’t take that class, that professor is a lot of work.’”

Despite these challenges, Nguyen embraces her identity as a first-generation student of color and loves being able to see people like her being acknowledged on campus. 

“I love that our university has First Gen week, because when I was a freshman, I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s me,’” Nguyen said. “I went to a predominantly white high school, and they didn’t care about the BIPOC people there. But at the University, where they have a lot of multicultural student orgs, multicultural sororities and fraternities, MCAE and stuff, I feel welcomed and I feel loved.” 

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