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Library Pop-Up Creates Space and Celebration for First Generation College Students

Published onMar 29, 2024
Library Pop-Up Creates Space and Celebration for First Generation College Students

During Fall Quarter 2023, UW Bothell and Cascadia College Campus Library celebrated First Generation College students with a pop-up event in our lobby. This annual recognition, “First Generation College Celebration,” took place on November 8 and was sponsored nationally by the Center for First Generation Student Success. The University of Washington took part in this celebration to encourage belonging, show support, and engage our campus communities in education around the first gen day event, first gen contributions, and awareness of first gen student challenges. The goal of our library was to invite our entire campus which consists of a community college, Cascadia, and a 4-year university, UW Bothell (UWB), and celebrate our diverse group of first gens. As the UWB Library Circulation Lead, I served on the tri-campus University of Washington committee and brainstormed ways to celebrate first gen students and helped plan for the university-wide celebration. Over the last few years, I’ve encouraged recognition and celebration of first gens among our library staff and student employees on a smaller scale. I passed out the popular first gen buttons to our staff and sent out emails with resources encouraging awareness and learning opportunities. Even though our library staff, including myself, have created first gen book displays in the past, this was the first year that we invited the campus to celebrate with a pop-up event in our lobby alongside a book display showcasing first gen stories and issues.   

Bulletin entitled Share Your Voice, Post Your Answers has two sides of questions. On the left, What's your hope as a first-generation student? On the right, What do you want the campus community to know about the first generation student experience? Attached below the prompts are library check-out cards with student answers. Posted in the center are resource lists and photo ops.

Display board accumulates student voices, answering our posted prompts.

Photo Credit: Cora Thomas

Our pop-up event featured a display board, an easel with a “#1” poster, and a book truck full of free give-aways and prepackaged snacks. As always, our first gen UW Libraries swag was a hit! Our activities included an invitation to answer two reflection questions on the display board. First gen students were curious about the display questions and took a pause in their busy day to thoughtfully respond to the prompts. The following are the prompts and responses from one of our own library student employees, a first gen sophomore studying Applied Computing: 

Prompt 1. What is your hope as a first generation college student? 

“My hope as a first gen is to learn as much as I can, not just academically but also [about] my community, and build the best version of myself to be the voice my family needs during their time here in the U.S.” 

Prompt 2. What do you want the campus community to know about the first generation college experience

“I think it’s important to recognize that as a first gen student, there is added pressure and weight on our shoulders to succeed, this, alongside with limited personal resources, makes the college experience more difficult. Knowing that, and seeing the amount of first gens succeed in this environment, displays the determination and power of first generation students.” 

This highlights how extremely important student voices can be in unfurling the road map to improve first gen support.

These prompts garnered 38 answers and filled the board! During the event, many students stayed to chat with library staff about their own experiences as first generation college students. Even though one student was not a first-generation student they still stayed and talked with me extensively about how they understood and could relate to some of first gen college struggles because of being first gen American—feelings of not belonging, not understanding how to navigate the educational system, and feelings of being behind compared to their peers. With the help of another first gen student employee, we also made a huge “#1” out of poster paper and encouraged our campus community to sign inside the “#1” and show their first gen pride. Many people were eager to sign their name and see their signature alongside fellow first gens. It wasn’t long before the entire poster was covered in signatures. 

Large poster with title First in Your Family! features an outline of a 1 that contains multiple signatures of students. Smaller 1s surround, and markers for signing are resting on a ledge.

Students sign the oversized #1—showing their first gen pride.

Photo Credit: Cora Thomas

To express our gratitude and pride, we had a first gen superhero theme with matching decorations and a superhero picture frame that we encouraged students to use, snap a pic, and then post to social media with the hashtags provided by the UW, #CelebrateFirstGen and #BeTheFirst. We even provided first gen stickers both from UW and also supplied by Cascadia College. The community college was also hosting an event similar to ours. Our staff and the library associate dean stopped by to chat with students during the pop-up. Everyone was very impressed! After the pop-up was over, we left the display board up for several days so more people could contribute to the reflection questions and sign their name inside the number one. Many people lingered at the board throughout the week to read the responses and pin up a few of their own.  

A wooden shelf displays 8 library books about the first generation college student experience, surroundned by 1s and signage celebrating first generation students.

A complementary first gen book display provides more resources, co-created with a first gen student library employee.

Photo Credit: Cora Thomas

Our library was able to shine a spotlight on students who are first in their families to attend college (or folks who have already graduated) and it was a jumping off point to engage our campus community in deeper conversations around what it means to be a first generation college student, how much strength first gens provide to our educational settings, and ultimately making known the challenges they’re facing. Knowing this helps staff and administrators better support these students during their entire academic journey. We provided a space for their voices to be heard and shared with the rest of the campus, empowering their experiences and centering their voices—advocacy that is much needed on many college campuses. We wanted to outwardly show that we support our first gens and this event accomplished that by bringing the campus together for this community of students. 

“In autumn 2023, 38% of incoming first-year students and 42% of new incoming transfers would be first in their immediate families to earn a four-year degree.”1 Forty-two percent is a big number. In my role and positionality as a library worker, I feel I need to know how to better support these students when they walk through the library doors. How can we as library staff support our outstanding first gen population—not only current students, but other staff and faculty members who are also first generation? 

This issue is close to my heart since I am a proud first gen and also an advocate that understands the multitude of first gen stories and has struggled with my own challenges. As a dedicated library worker, I am interested in ways to support the unique needs of this student population. It starts with listening to and understanding students’ stories. If more educators and staff understand the barriers that first gens face, then we can work together to break down those challenges that stand in the way of receiving the resources and support they need academically, financially, and emotionally. And, even more importantly, educators can start to better develop support systems within our institutions. First gen students are not the same and we do not have the exact same story. First gens experience different challenges and that’s one reason why understanding how to support this group in a holistic manner is so crucial.

Our library is evolving with new and different ways to show how we build community and support our students by hosting events like pop-ups that form those connections. This event propelled the first gen community in strengthening their personal growth by learning more about other first gens and expressing their stories with  fellow campus community members. This inclusive and welcoming space we created also strengthened library staff’s growth by witnessing the overwhelming response and engagement from the pop-up, proving that students are searching for ways to share and connect. 

After the success of this event, I encouraged our library to host a pop-up every year during the national First Generation College Student Celebration. I would like to thank everyone who supported this effort from the UW tri-campus committee, to our associate dean at the UWB Library, the access services manager in our Circulation unit, and all the staff who came out to support our students during the event. Don’t forget November 8th, and don’t forget first gen college students and graduates. We matter! 

Cora Thomas looks toward the camera with a slight smile against a black background. She is wearing a cozy, knit sweater, glasses, dangling earring, and has her hair back in a ponytail.
Cora Thomas (she/her/hers) is the first in her family to earn baccalaureate and post baccalaureate degrees. She has worked to advocate for first generation college students through the First in Our Families digital storytelling project and by supporting student success in her current role for over six years as a Circulation Lead for the UW Bothell and Cascadia College Campus Library. Cora has the best job of leading and mentoring extraordinary student employees who inspire her each day with their creative and thoughtful approach to library work. Cora is a published poet, an avid hiker, and her love language is baking.  
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