Sept. 18, 2023

University of Calgary launches tuition support, mentorship for students who are 1st in their family to attend higher ed

First-Generation Scholars Program most comprehensive program of its kind for first-generation students at Canadian universities
Michael Barraza
UCalgary student Michael Barraza was the first in his family to attend post-secondary education. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

As students venture off each fall to start their university journey, parents are often overheard sharing tips on how to make friends, navigate campus or where to find part-time jobs — lessons learned when they were in post-secondary.    

But what happens if no one from your family has ever attended post-secondary education before? Michael Barraza, now a second-year natural sciences student, faced this challenge when he started at the University of Calgary. 

“It’s like a small city here,” says Barraza. “When you're in high school, you have your little community. You know that the school is one building and not multiple strewn over a few city blocks. So, coming to a campus like this can be a bit intimidating, especially without having an example from your parents, or someone to give tips and tricks on how to navigate things.” 

Michael Barraza

Michael Barraza

Riley Brandt

Hidden curriculum 

Barraza was born in Canada and grew up in Red Deer, Alta. His parents are refugees from El Salvador who never had the opportunity to pursue education beyond high school. He recalls having an early passion for learning and, despite that, he had to have numerous conversations with his parents to explain the Canadian post-secondary school system and convince them that the path he wanted to take would be worthwhile. 

Barraza’s experience is not unique. 

“There is a hidden curriculum of unofficial rules, beliefs, values, and norms of how things work on campus, a kind of secondary socialization that first-generation students simply don’t know,” says Dr. Malinda Smith, vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion.  

“It’s like being dropped off in unfamiliar territory with no map to guide you, while everyone else seems to have a GPS with the secret instructions on how to navigate the road ahead and what to do to succeed.” 

First-Generation Scholars Program 

Driven by the belief that education is a powerful tool for transformation, UCalgary is committed to breaking down barriers and increasing access to education for all. As part of its new strategic plan, Ahead of Tomorrow, UCalgary is launching the First-Generation Scholars Program with financial support, mentorship, advising and networking opportunities for students who will be the first in their families to attend university. This initiative directly supports Strategy 1 of the plan, which is to increase access to impactful and future-focused education.  

It is the most comprehensive program of its kind for first-generation students at Canadian universities, with plans for a robust suite of support services that focus on creating a positive student experience. Eligible students looking to attend UCalgary in fall 2024 will be able to apply to the program this October. Support includes $2,500 in tuition and a set of dedicated supports for their success, including advising, mentorship and wellness services. 

“What makes this program powerful is that it goes beyond financial support to also provide the connection, mentorship and advice these students need to successfully navigate their university experience from Day 1 to convocation,” says Registrar Amy Dambrowitz, PhD.  

Adjusting to a new environment is a big change and it is hard for everyone, and being first-in-family brings extra challenges, says Tram Nguyen, who works in UCalgary’s Student Success Centre as an academic development specialist and supports first-generation students.  

“Some of the common obstacles that these students may encounter include lack of access to information about university programs and pathways, or financial constraints,” Nguyen says. “Unlike some of their peers, they can’t rely on their parents’ or guardians’ experiences to navigate university challenges.” 

First step  

Though Barraza initially had to do a lot of convincing to get his parents on board with his pursuit of higher education, they have been his biggest supporters. “There's that sense of achievement that I was the first in my family to really push and strive for something more, which is what they always wanted,” he says.  

“That's why I always had their support. I made my family proud and I made myself proud. I taught myself that I can do this and I can push myself enough to take that big leap.” 

The First-Generation Scholars Program is expected to evolve in the coming years. By 2030, UCalgary aims to offer a full semester of tuition for all eligible students. Supports will also be created based on what the students indicate they need most.  

“Students from families with no previous university experience face unique uncertainties about investing in higher education,” says Smith. “Support can open the door to expanded educational participation across communities, helping our campus better reflect the diversity of the world around us.”    

Barraza is excited about the opportunities that will be provided to future first-generation students like himself. “Education is so important. Being able to learn to thrive is something that is incredibly beneficial. It's undeniable how impactful and how incredible it is for someone to be able to achieve that,” he says. 

First-Generation Scholars Program 

As Canada’s entrepreneurial university, UCalgary is compelled to lower barriers and increase access to education for all. The First-Generation Scholars Program opens doors by providing financial support and wraparound services for students who are the first in their family to access post-secondary education. 

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