I Am First Gen

Nearly 25 percent of UMass Amherst undergraduates are first-generation college students—trailblazers in their families. Their stories are ones of ambition and finding belonging at UMass.

Above: Shanazi Jackson '23, Nutrition Major

Defined by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), the professional home for the field of student affairs, first-generation college students come from families where parents have not yet earned a bachelor's degree. Here at UMass Amherst, however, we recognize that the definition of a first-generation student is fluid, encompassing complex family dynamics and embodying a diverse group of individuals who hold multiple identities.

Being the first to go to college is a significant accomplishment that many families value and celebrate. Without the generational experience and guidance available to students whose families are familiar with higher education, it's imperative that this determined demographic of first-generation students has access to tools, community, and mentors to support their success.



So what do first-generation students need to know? College can be challenging, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is having to navigate the ins and outs of higher education without support. At UMass Amherst, we've mainstreamed support for first-generation students—who make up nearly 25 percent of our undergraduates.

Over the years, the university has acted as a springboard for so many of these individuals, and the faces of first-generation students are varied, resilient, and more empowered than ever.


UMass has proactively created many avenues of support for first-generation students, including:

First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP)

A student organization whose mission is to build a community that allows first-gen and/or low-income students to encourage each other and support each other’s overall academic success. FLIP also educates the campus community on the first-generation low-income student experience and advocates for targeted supports.

The Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success (CMASS)

CMASS supports the academic success and sense of belonging of first-generation students, students of color, multiracial students, and low-income students.

Student Success

This team gathers and alerts first-gen students to resources available across campus to help them approach personal finance, logistical challenges, and how to celebrate as part of the larger first-gen community.


Founded by Linda Ziegenbein ’13PhD and the late Tracie Gibson, this Residential Academic Program brings together first-year students who identify as first generation and are pursuing life sciences majors. Bio-Pioneers community members live together in Southwest’s Emerson Hall, take select coursework as a group, and receive mentorship opportunities.

Connect UMass First-Generation Students and Alumni Group

In this virtual community, first-gen students can connect with each other and with UMass alumni who are open to sharing their own first-gen experiences. Students and alumni can join the community online.



Shanazi Jackson

Shanazi Jackson '23 was the first of 13 grandchildren in her family to graduate from college. Her grandparents came to the United States from the Caribbean. The nutrition major transferred schools twice in her collegiate career, with UMass being her third campus experience. Jackson says she was motivated by her younger siblings looking up to her. “I don’t know if it’s pride or ambition, but I just felt like I needed to get this done. I knew failure was not an option for me.” Jackson adds that Claire Norton of the nutrition department has been a key force in her development, pointing out that Norton just seemed to put in more effort than advisors past. Jackson says, “When I took classes with Claire, that’s when I fell in love with the major.” Along with Norton and the nutrition faculty, Jackson credits her success to passion for community work and holistic health and wellness shared among the major’s students. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career as a dietitian.

Cam Boylan

Cam Boylan ’24 has adapted to the culture shock of being a first-year student in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture by getting right to work. “Honestly, I just kind of put my head down and went right into it,” Boylan says of his fall semester, when working as a bus driver helped him get familiar with the layout of campus before classes began. As a transfer and commuter student, Boylan has leaned on the example of his late grandmother, Mary-Jean Fontaine, who was an integral part of his upbringing. “She had probably the most level head I’ve ever seen,” he said, recalling being tempted to join a fight during a high school football game before thinking, “If she were still here, I would never hear the end of it.” Ultimately, Boylan would like to own a landscape contracting business as well as work in the sustainable food and farming industry. He credits a "tight-knit" Stockbridge faculty and staff for their friendliness and support during this time of transition.


Saffron Turner

Saffron Turner ’24 had already fallen in love with the Amherst area when they moved to Massachusetts from Florida with “a U-Haul and two cats.” In 2018, Turner had visited local friends for a commencement. “It made me so happy to be here, and it made me feel like this is where I belonged,” they said. After leaving their first college in 2016, Turner spent time discovering that they are autistic and creating new frameworks for self-care. That period was a turning point. “I just simply didn’t care what other people thought of me anymore. I was like: I’m here to get my degree, I’m here to get as much out of my classes as I can, I’m here to pick my professors’ brains, I’m here to pick any students’ brains who would like to talk! And that is something that I’ve carried with me.”

Entering the university well into their 20s has not slowed Turner either. At a New Student Orientation & Transitions event in fall 2022, they were surprised at how staff reframed first-generation status as a strength. “I feel like first-gen students are the kinds of students who go to professors’ office hours,” they reflect. Turner now researches disability studies, with a particular emphasis on autistic self-advocacy, and finding ways to incorporate the voices of autistic people who are not well-represented in current research, such as nonverbal people. Turner pointed out how in moments of doubt, first-gen students can look to many faculty and staff at UMass who are also first-gen graduates themselves and have been in their shoes before. “It’s one thing to know in the abstract that you aren’t the only person who has had similar experiences,” they said, adding, “It’s something completely different to actually meet people and ask them how they’ve dealt with a specific situation.”

Adam Ruales-Godoy

Adam Ruales-Godoy '24 advocates for work-life balance among fellow students, and he would know. In addition to being a preveterinary major with a biology minor, Ruales-Godoy serves as president of the university’s First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP), social event coordinator for the University Programming Council (UPC), a resident assistant, a Mullins Center event staffer, and an intramural volleyball referee. As president of FLIP, Ruales-Godoy works to make space for first-gen and low-income students to come together after long days. “I have heard of students having to go from class to class and then to work and back to their off-campus housing daily,” he said. Ruales-Godoy views his studies as representing not just himself, but his supportive Ecuadorian parents and brother. He’s also found ways to share happiness with his family using his contributions to campus outside of the classroom. “Although parents appreciate grades, they feel joy seeing pictures or stories of unique experiences at UMass,” he says, remembering how his work with UPC at the 2022 Spring Concert landed him a group picture with artists Cash Cash, Tems, and headliner Jack Harlow. “I showed the photo to my parents,” he recalls. “They were excited to hear about it, and felt pride that their son was experiencing this life.”

Ivana Alecio

Before Ivana Alecio ’24 landed on campus, the Lynn, Mass. native spent her first year of college on Zoom. While the pandemic made what is often a rocky transition for first-gen students that much stranger, Alecio has since transitioned smoothly to campus life as a sociology major. She credits the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success with helping her during this critical period. “As the oldest daughter in an immigrant household, going to college is a big deal for my family. In many instances, I have struggled being away from my family, but they have always instilled the importance of what I am doing and demonstrated how proud they are of me—even if they don’t fully understand what I go through.” She feels other students don’t always understand “how important it is to be a college student for us first-gen students,” but she always feels supported by professors and staff. Along with a sociology degree, Alecio is pursuing certificates in social work and civic engagement/service learning.


This story was published in June 2023. A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of UMass magazine.