First-generation scholars fighting against the pandemic

Illustration by Christian Ayala

A new school year is always different, but this year brings challenges for many students. NAU has created classroom layouts that enforce social distancing. Hand sanitizer dispensers and social distancing markers are spread throughout campus to keep students safe. Students are experiencing an alternative college experience with the adjustments NAU made.

One recent change is the implementation of NAUFlex, which began at the start of the semester and allows students to alternate between in-person classes and attending online. With an ongoing pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and online classes, students can feel overwhelmed. 

COVID-19 has affected college students all around the world, especially first-generation students. According to NAU’s first-generation resources website, almost 46% of NAU students identify as first-gen students. 

First-gen freshman Kaili Robertson said COVID-19 has affected her college experience both socially and academically. 

“I don’t do well with online classes, so I’m struggling right now,” Robertson said in an email interview. “I feel secluded because I can’t see or meet anyone, but I understand why.” 

A study conducted by Austin Peay State University assistant professor George M. Froggé and Kathryn H. Woods, associate professor in the Department of Leadership and Organizational Administration, found that first-gen students are in favor of face-to-face classes over online lessons.

In this study, only 14% of first-gen students preferred their learning format to be online, in contrast to 19% of second-gen students in favor of online learning.

The disadvantages of online classes are little to no face-to-face interaction and low quality internet lectures. A report provided by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium, at the University of California, Berkeley, stated its survey results proposed that first-gen students lacked necessary equipment to complete online courses. Online learning requires consistent Wi-Fi connection, a working device and a quiet area to learn. 

Students in need of equipment for their classes can head over to Cline Library. The library provides a free technology lending service for current NAU and Coconino Community College students. The library also offers individual study rooms and Zoom cubicles, which students must reserve in advance. 

NAU freshman Tanner Alcaraz said a concern of his is completing online classes. On top of that, Alcaraz said he has found it harder to meet people in the middle of a pandemic. 

“I was already nervous about coming into college as a first-gen student, but with the pandemic, it’s been pretty tough with not being able to meet as many people as I would like,” Alcaraz said in an email interview.  

Alcaraz said lack of human connection due to COVID-19 has affected his experience. He said because of the virus he has felt lonely, and the lack of socialization can strain one’s mental health.

According to the SERU Consortium study, first-gen university students experience higher rates of depression and stress than their peers.

The research survey’s findings suggest that 44% of first-gen students screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder, while only 38% of continuing generation students are reported to have generalized anxiety out of 28,198 undergraduate students. 

NAU has on-campus resources, including counseling services. The university also created virtual events to keep students informed, some of which are geared toward first-gen students.Virtual events like the First-Generation Programs workshop series help students develop their academic and career development skills. 


The university hosts online events for students looking for something fun to do. These events include a Virtual Cooking Demo and Virtual PAWS Your Stress. NAU has created these online occasions to keep students social and active on campus.

First-gen students not only face social and academic complexities this semester, but financial struggles as well. They were found to be nearly twice as likely to be concerned about paying for their first semester in college, according to the SERU study. 

NAU freshman Makayla Grandpre said it has been harder to find in-person resources due to the ongoing pandemic. 

“My parents didn’t complete college,” Grandpre said. “I didn’t know where to start or what to do. My biggest concern is finances and lack of in-person resources.”

First-gen students struggle with more financial hardships than students who are part of a continuing generation.  In the SERU survey, first-gen students were more likely to experience loss of income from family members, unexpected increases in living expenses and technology and loss of wages from on- and off-campus employment. 

NAU has resources for first-gen students who may be facing difficulties during this time.