STEM has a reputation for being one of UT’s most challenging fields of study, but for first-generation STEM students, tough classes aren’t the only obstacle they face.
According to the Student Success Initiatives at UT, more than 20 percent of UT undergrads are first-generation college students. Both Ralph Wiser, mechanical engineering senior, and Ana Silverio, marine and freshwater science junior, said they have experienced difficult challenges as first-generation STEM students.
“Most first-generation students are faced with complete unfamiliarity with the demands of a university education,” Wiser said. “Having parents who know the answers to questions such as how to handle financial aid and how student loans work would have been helpful.”
Despite this difficulty, Wiser said starting his college career at a community college not only helped prepare him for a university education, but for a career in the STEM field.
“Starting at a community college where the costs and the stakes are lower helped me navigate the complexities of an education,” Wiser said.
Silverio said that initially, the STEM field was incredibly intimidating as she was overcome with the feeling of being a “fraud.”
“There is an amount of pressure that comes with being the first in any field, but particularly in STEM with the amount of competition,” Silverio said. “It was more difficult than I expected it to be, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
Silverio said she had to do her own extensive research to understand how the University system worked and sought advice from mentors and professors.
“A resource that would have been extremely helpful is a panel of advisors familiar with working with first-generation students,” Silverio said.
STEM education associate professor Jill Marshall said there are steps faculty can take to ensure first-generation students have the resources to be successful.
“Much of STEM involves research opportunities, and learning how to obtain these opportunities to enrich your career in STEM is vital,” Marshall said. “Reaching out to students and letting them know what is possible in a more personal level is an added step that we need to take.”
Silverio said other first-generation students should understand that they belong here just as much as everyone else.
“Going into STEM and being first-generation has taught me the virtue of education and how lucky we are to be in a place where it’s available to us,” Silverio said. “It has given me a sense of pride and a label I’m proud of.”