PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — The first day of college started with a bad internet connection for Hannah Pfeffer.
She attempted to log into her virtual classroom using video chat, but without success. Were it not for a coronavirus pandemic, that would not have been a problem, but safety protocols precluded a face-to-face meeting.
“Not being able to show up and make a good impression, your first day of college, I thought I was going to fail the class instantly for some reason because I had no control over the situation,” the University of Wisconsin-Platteville freshman said.
Pfeffer, the first in her family to attend college, moved to Platteville from Racine.
She hopes to become a veterinarian and is holding onto her aspirations as she copes with social distancing regulations that have vastly changed the higher-education landscape.
Many of Pfeffer’s courses are taught virtually and she has spent much of her time in her dorm room. Despite her nerves about keeping up with her coursework, she is not discouraged.
“What kept me going through (high school) was I was going to get to college,” she said. “I would have met my true friends in college. I would have joined more clubs and been involved. Now that I’m here, I’m happy to be here. If I have to wear a mask, if I have to sit six feet apart, I’ll do it just to be here and get on with my life.”
First-generation students — those whose parents have not participated in postsecondary education — face challenges their peers with college-going parents do not, which researchers attribute to a lack of “cultural capital.”
Students cannot draw on their experiences, which can leave them in the dark regarding the significance of course syllabi, financial aid or office hours.
Those factors increase their risk of academic underperformance and college dropout.
UW-Platteville, where 37% of students are first-generation, is no exception to the national trends.
A U.S. Department of Education study found that three years after enrolling in college, 33% of first-generation students left without completing their postsecondary credential compared to the 14% of peers whose parents earned a bachelor’s degree.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the social distancing measures that enable colleges to safely operate have added to the complexity of navigating institutions.
“Like everything, the pandemic just made issues bigger,” said Marianne Mauss, director of academic resource and disability services at Clarke University, where about 25% of students are first generation or low income. “People are feeling more stressed. Managing the workload. Getting things done.”
Universities in the tri-state region only had a summer to rapidly transition to online and hybrid learning models, but among their chief concerns was ensuring that underserved students remained successful.
At the start of the semester, many academic support staff feared that in the absence of routine contact, students would drift academically and socially.
At UW-Platteville, first-generation and low-income students, as well as those with disabilities, are eligible for year-round academic support services through TRIO Student Support Services.
They can meet with advisers and tutors, both online and in-person.
Angie Yang, a student support services adviser and TRIO coordinator, fears that the social distancing measures have had the unintended consequence of increasing the complexity of accessing those services.
“I feel like a lot of students who might need tutoring support might not reach out as much, especially if they are not coming to campus,” she said.
Yang’s office has redoubled its efforts to check in with students.
The University of Dubuque also offers TRIO services. About 60% of the student body is first generation.
Most services have moved online, but students who feel comfortable can meet face-to-face with staff.
“As best as we’re trying to do this, there is no perfect way to do it,” said Melissa Huekels, the program’s director.
She said the hurdles of technology and alternating virtual and in-person class schedules posed the greatest challenges.
“There were definitely some growing pains in those first initial weeks,” Huekels said.
Area colleges and universities adopted a plethora of strategies to cope.
“When we went virtual, we called all of our students within the first week … just to make sure things started smoothly. What were the things they didn’t have?” said Cindy Virta, TRIO director at Northeastern Iowa Community College. “There was a ton of problem solving.”
Clarke University offered laptop computers for long-term checkout and provided loans for textbook rentals.
Loras College hired a new mental health counselor, who was a first-generation student, at its health center. The institution also provided additional scholarships for students, said Sergio Perez, director of the Center for Inclusion and Advocacy.
Many of the measures are likely to remain permanent fixtures.
At Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, where an estimated half of students are first generation, all student services transitioned to virtual delivery, including tutoring and advising.
That option will outlast the pandemic, especially because so many students are commuters.
“We’re finding that students are using the remote support and the virtual support because it works with their schedules and their family lives,” said Melissa Klinkhammer, academic services supervisor.