Missouri Southern sophomore Naiam Perez is a first-generation student, meaning she’s the first in her family to go to college.

When she came to campus as a freshman, she was “absolutely overwhelmed” by the culture shock of college life.

“Being a first-generation student has come with a lot of challenges with everything I had to do,” said Perez, a Monett High School graduate studying to become a nurse. “How do I fill out a FAFSA (student aid form)? How do I pay for classes? Where do I go? What do I do?”

Nationally, 89% of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year because of what’s called “culture acclamation shock.” At MSSU, 65% of the total 2019 students enrolled this fall are first-generation students.

Which is why, in conjunction with National First-Gen Day, the university’s Project Stay hosted its inaugural First-Generation Celebration Day on Friday on the second floor of Billingsly Student Center. Cupcakes and “First to Roar” pens were being handed out to all students.

Project Stay, a federal TRIO program entirely funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is to provide resources to students to ease the transition through college and to graduate with a degree. TRIO programs provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Perez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico before becoming U.S. citizens, said she didn’t know where to go for answers and didn’t have anyone at home who could help her navigate the college world.

But through the help of Project Stay, she was able to find what she called her “second family.” She was determined not to become another second-generation statistic.

“My parents didn’t have the opportunity to continue their education because they used to live in Mexico and always ... dreamed of coming to the United States,” Perez said.

Since she was a little girl, however, the importance of school was drilled into her by her mother and father, though — at times — those lectures would become rather annoying, she said.

“Now, coming to college, it just all makes sense to me,” Perez said. College education, she said she now realizes, “will open up many opportunities for me. It allows me to have a better life. That’s all my parents ever wanted from me. I realize that now.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but taking a step back after my freshman year, it’s like wow, I’m desperately lucky to be here.”

This was the first time in Southern’s history that National First-Generation Day was celebrated on campus, said Debbie Fort, Project Stay director. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., while passing out cupcakes and buttons, she also spoke personally with many students, most of them first-generation students. She surprised some when she told them that she, too, had once been a first-gen student. They also learned that MSSU President Alan Marble had been a first-gen student himself.

“Being a first in your family is a big deal,” she said. “You have a lot of hopes and aspirations riding on you. When you’re a first-gen, you don’t want to let your family down.”

Taylor Boyett, a junior nursing student from Austin, Texas, couldn’t say enough good things about Project Stay.

“They have helped me a lot with financial aid this semester, things that I didn’t realize that my parents didn’t know to tell me,” she said. Fort, she said, “helped me realize that I have more financial aid options than I’d realized, so I’m actually saving a ton of money.”

Knowing what she knows now, Perez said, she’ll be able to help others in the future.

“I’ll be able to pass on to my future children,” she said.

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