Esha Tasir examines a pteri dish in a lab

Forging new paths: First-generation students tackle college culture, educational goals

Trailblazers. Pioneers. Leaders. Being the first means taking a different approach, and first-generation college students often must carve a different path to the finish line than their classmates with parents who graduated from college. 

In spring 2022 at Brenau, 42% of students in The Women’s College were navigating the university experience as first-generation students.

The U.S. Department of Education says the “culture capital” of a parent’s knowledge of how higher education works can directly impact a first-generation student, no matter how academically prepared the student is. 

“Before I came to college, my only perception of college life was what I saw in the media and on television,” Sahara Outler says. 

Sahara Outler

Outler is a senior psychology major and the first in her family to pursue higher education. Initially setting her sights on another school, she was drawn to The Women’s College after an open house, and decided to call it home after her campus tour ended.

For Outler, Brenau’s free application process was an easy first step. 

“My family couldn’t afford all of the application fees, so being offered a free application meant everything,” she says. 

From her acceptance and enrollment at Brenau, Outler began building a college experience. She joined Alpha Gamma Delta sorority and took leadership roles in student government, Black Student Association, Golden Guides, and other organizations. 

Outler also represented Brenau in China as an international ambassador and served as a mentor to incoming Chinese students. Outler works on campus in Student Services and conducts campus tours.

But it’s the deep roots of The Women’s College that mean the most to her.

“My favorite part of the Brenau experience is getting to be a part of so many long-standing traditions,” she says. “I have met many alumni over the years and getting to share these unique experiences with such a small group of people is truly special. Brenau has a unique history of shaping talented and strong women and I am fortunate to be a part of it.”

Senior biology major Esha Tasir says being part of the Brenau family is one of the things that made her college experience special. Her family emigrated from Pakistan, and while her parents attended higher education in their home country, Tasir says the American education system differs. She’s the first one in her family to attend an American university. 

“I saw how much they struggled coming to the United States and being immigrants so that my brothers and I have a wonderful future. I knew I couldn’t waste this opportunity,” Tasir says. “I was also intrinsically motivated: I knew this is what I wanted to do, even if someone before me did not attend college. If I wanted to impact my future in a positive way, then this would be the way to do it.”


According to the U.S. Department of Education, 48% first-generation college students persist on track after enrolling in higher education, compared to 67% of students who had at least one parent complete a bachelor’s degree. And 20% of first-generation students obtained a bachelor’s degree six years after entering postsecondary education, compared to 49% of students whose parents attended college, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

Tasir wasn’t sure what to expect, but found a balance between her educational pursuits and embracing the university atmosphere.

She chose to get involved on campus through Student Services and remained involved despite challenges with COVID-19. She served as an orientation leader and took part in the annual Gold Refined By Fire ceremony. She also made lifelong friendships.

“Brenau just really showed me that even if I’m busy or drowning in work, I can still manage to see all the good times and the experiences that I will remember forever, and share them with the people I really care about,” she says.


Debra Dobkins, dean of The Women’s College and interim vice president of Student Services, is a first-generation women’s college student. She says having a strong support system is key to navigating the new university lifestyle.

“I felt very much on my own to figure things out by myself. I went to a great school, had a great advisor, but I still had to be the one to figure out and navigate things,” Dobkins says. “Knowing what I know now, I realize there probably was a strong support network that I could have tapped into. I do think that all students need to feel that they belong, that they are capable, that they can succeed, and that there are people at the institution there to help ensure that they succeed.”

Debra Dobkins

Didi Cassell, executive director of academic initiatives and student success, says while all Brenau students have equal access to support services, there is an emphasis to assist those with the greatest need, which can include first-generation students. 

“With the increased stressors typically carried by first-generation students, we strongly promote our institutional counseling services for those who may be struggling mentally or emotionally with the many demands they face,” Cassell says. “Academic support services have expanded to be more accessible to students, and they have the opportunity to work with peer or professional tutors for difficult academic subjects.”

Cassell says the first point of contact for students is their advisor, but academic coaches are also available to provide support for academic planning.

“Coaches conduct one-on-one sessions to help students navigate course syllabi and create assignment plans, which allows students to take ownership of their education and ensure they are not falling behind, but rather taking a proactive step towards their success,” she says.

Dobkins also says it’s important to remember that most women’s colleges were initially designed to serve underserved populations and first-generation students should be proud of how far they’ve come. She encourages Brenau students, staff, faculty and administrators who are first-generation students to share their stories.

“It’s not a setback or a drawback or a disadvantage. Maybe instead think about how being a first-generation student helps you see things with fresh eyes,” Dobkins says. “It’s different than if you go to the college that everybody in your family went to. You’re coming to it from a different perspective than if all of this is brand new to you. We need everybody in this environment, whether it’s the person whose family has gone here for generations or the person who is the first in their family to step foot on a college campus.”

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