Right where he belongs: Duke undergraduate student Jamal Edwards with fellow first-year students on Duke's East Campus. Credit: Megan Moor
Right where he belongs: Duke undergraduate student Jamal Edwards with fellow first-year students on Duke's East Campus. Credit: Megan Moor

Blazing a Trail

First-generation students get help adjusting to Duke.
November 5, 2012

When Jamal Edwards ’16 was admitted to Duke during the early-decision period last fall, the California native was so excited that he couldn’t wait to get to campus. But as enrollment neared, he says, “I began to get stressed about all the logistics.”

Such freshman jitters are normal, but for students such as Edwards, the first member of his family to attend a four-year college, the adjustment to Duke can pose particular challenges. So-called “first-generation” college students—of which there are about 125 in the Class of 2016—are trailblazers, with no template of family experience to help them navigate college life.

To ease the transition, Duke launched a pre-orientation program for first-generation students this fall. Edwards was one of fifty-three freshmen who participated in the inaugural program, which included information sessions on financial aid, campus jobs, buying books, sticking to a budget, time management, and working with faculty members and academic advisers.

The sessions grew out of an informal collaboration between the Academic Resource Center (ARC) and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Based on input from current and former first-generation students, the offices formed the 1G Network in 2009 to offer advising, peer mentoring, and social opportunities for the approximately 500 firstgeneration undergraduates. Throughout the year, 1G students are invited to community dinners and faculty networking sessions, as well as more informal get-togethers. The preorientation workshops were added in a partnership with several other campus offices.

“ARC and CAPS are very focused on the 1G network as a community,” says ARC director Donna Hall. “At the same time, there are institutional efforts to make individuals in the 1G population aware of the services available to all Duke students.”

Edwards, who aspires to be a primary-care doctor, says being part of a 1G community at an elite university is a tremendous source of pride. “Just the fact that I am at Duke leaves me speechless,” he says. “It’s comforting to know that I’ve got a whole village of supporters, people I can reach out to who are experiencing the same things I am.”