Club Helps First Gen Students Overcome College Obstacles


Courtesy of Zahra Cope and Heidy Calderon

President Zahra Cope (left) and Vice President Heidy Calderon credit the guidance from their 1st Gen mentor as the reason they can successfully navigate the challenges of higher education.

Although college enrollment is on the rise, the number of students obtaining degrees from four-year universities is staggeringly low. It comes as no surprise that college is expensive and time-consuming, but for first-generation students, those whose parents or guardians do not have a four-year degree, the hurdles can appear insurmountable.

San Jacinto College Central Campus Integrated Reading and Writing Professor Michelle Wilson’s personal experience inspired her to start the 1st Gen student organization at San Jac after she attended a conference in 2013 called Achieving the Dream.

“They showed the first gen(eration) documentary, and I realized that I was first gen and that we may have a big population at San Jac,” she said. “When I got back, I asked our director of research. He said 74 percent of our students at Central (Campus) were first gen. I knew I had to do something.” 

The organization has chapters on the Central and South Campuses and is open to all first-generation college students looking to complete a degree plan successfully. The organization centers on mentors forming one-on-one relationships with student mentees. The mentors and mentees fill out interest forms, and Wilson pairs them based on their similarities.

Two of Wilson’s mentees include the organization’s president, Zahra Cope, and its vice president, Heidy Calderon. 

Cope is from Somalia and is the first from her East African village to attend college. She faced many struggles while in school including feeling so overwhelmed that she dropped all her classes during her first year of college.

With renewed determination to return and fight through the challenges, she discovered Wilson’s 1st Gen organization. Wilson was Cope’s mentor and in turn, helped her through personal and academic issues. Also, she guided Cope through an academic degree plan and made sure she knew what classes to take and how to stay organized. With the help of Wilson, Cope can keep her head afloat while working toward a degree.

“The success is endless,” Cope said of 1st Gen. “You will gain confidence. You will feel like you belong to a community.”

Likewise, Calderon, whose parents emigrated from Honduras, faced similar challenges and found 1st Gen a beneficial resource.

“Having a mentor has helped me stay on track with what classes I still need to take and be able to earn my degree,” Calderon said.

Calderon credits the organization for her new-found ability to speak up when she has questions, a common struggle for many first-generation students. Other shared challenges include losing track of deadlines, limited study time, and missing classes. Calderon said, with the help of a mentor, many obstacles to completing a degree can be minimalized or overcome. 

“The mission for 1st Gen is to help students with any problems they are experiencing,” she added, “and make them know that they are not alone throughout their college journey.”

Further information is available under the 1st Generation Students tab at or visit the organization’s Instagram and Twitter pages: @SanJac1stGen.