As his classmates took final exams and packed up their belongings, Josh Farris was still trying to find a way for his family to see him walk the Lawn on graduation day at the University of Virginia.
After four years of work, much of it centered on finding a way to add resources for fellow first-generation and low-income students at UVa, Farris will be the first person in his family to graduate from college. On Sunday, he will receive a degree from the Curry School of Education and Human Development, with a focus on youth and social innovation.
He wanted his whole family to be able to witness it. But, in one of the many information gaps Farris attributes to his first-generation status, he didn’t realize until it was too late that local hotels book up a year in advance for graduation weekend. Remaining listed options were out of his family’s price range. Driving in and out that day didn’t seem to fit the occasion for them.
So Farris spent his last week of classes making calls and sending emails. Finally, one week before Final Exercises and with support from the Office of the Dean of Students, he found a subsidized way for his family, who lives in Shawsville, in Southwest Virginia, to stay on Grounds.
“I said, look, it’s been an 11-year goal for me to graduate from college, and here I am,” he said. “I want them to see it!”
School provided Farris a path through childhood, which included acting out and a brief bout of homelessness with his family. A second-grade teacher was kind to him and offered him reasons to start working hard in school, he said.
Since then, he has been determined to go to college and use those skills to help his family and other first-generation and low-income students. In 2014, he found out that he had received a full ride to attend UVa through the QuestBridge scholarship — something that changed his whole trajectory, he said.
Senior resident Joan Lee is among 7,090 students receiving degrees this weekend.
* * *
Farris didn’t hear the term “first-generation” — and didn’t think to apply the label to himself — until his third year at UVa, when he attended a conference for first-generation and low-income college students called AL1GN.
Learning about social ideas of first-generation and low-income college students helped to solidify some of his experiences at UVa, he said. Many of his classmates didn’t know how to respond when Farris talked about his family’s income or some family members’ time being incarcerated. His classmates didn’t struggle to afford textbooks. They hadn’t had to sleep near an airport bathroom for several days when a missed flight left them stranded.
“It’s experiences like that that make you feel alienated,” Farris said. “I felt like it was just my life, and then I realized it’s unconventional for a lot of people.”
A 2018 study by the Center for First-Generation Student Success reported that a third of college undergraduates are the first in their family to attend college; many more will be the first in their family to receive a college degree.
Many first-generation college students are also low-income, from rural communities or from immigrant families. Students with more than one of those backgrounds are often at a disadvantage when it comes to completing degrees. According to a 2016 report from the Pell Institute, which studies outcomes and opportunities for low-income, first-generation and students with disabilities, only 21% of students who were both low-income and first-generation and who began school in 2003 had attained a bachelor’s degree by 2009.
Farris believes that many small obstacles at UVa, such as recent changes to financial aid forms and funding extracurricular projects, can become big barriers for first-generation and low-income students.
“You can’t get a job just going to class and getting good grades; there’s a lot of other stuff you have to do,” he said. “When you’re helping support your parents and siblings, there’s a lot you have to figure out yourself.”
* * *
Once Farris began learning about the data and policy surrounding first-generation students, he said he was determined to find ways to help other students.
“The drive comes from knowing my family is back home, watching,” Farris said. “I want to show them there’s more out there.”
UVa, along with other colleges across the country, has focused increasing attention on recruiting and enrolling first-generation students. Since 2013, a growing number of first-generation students have enrolled at UVa, rising to 424 students, or 11% of the Class of 2022, in the fall of 2018.
Farris, though, maintains that simply opening the door for degrees is not enough, and he has spent his last year on Grounds trying to expand and add resources for first-generation students. One project has been leading and hosting the AL1GN conference at UVa this spring, and creating a class where first-generation students can study policy issues and propose solutions for their peers.
“He just showed up at my door one day,” said Paul Martin, an associate professor of public policy at the Frank D. Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “He was seeking resources and he was unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer, and I found that really inspiring.”
Martin, who was himself the first in his family to go to college, said Farris’ determination led him to find more ways to support current first-generation students. Under the direction of Martin and Michele Claibourn, a UVa research librarian, Farris researched policy and data and helped to formulate the one-credit class, which will be offered this fall.
“Even among the first-generation student population, Josh is a rare bird,” Martin said.
Farris’ capstone class was taught by Nancy Deutsch, an education professor who leads UVa’s Youth-Nex and the Youth and Social Innovation program. She allowed him to make the AL1GN conference his capstone, though neither of them realized the amount of organization and fundraising it would entail.
“He dedicated his time and energy not to just getting himself through, but to helping others through,” Deutsch said. “He was just tenacious, and he said he was going to make this project happen, and he did.”
Students from more than 20 universities attended the conference. One of the event’s themes was teaching students to share their own stories and, by the end of the weekend, Farris said several students had approached him. They had been planning to drop out, he said, but hearing other students’ stories and resources encouraged them to stay in school.
“A lot of students need help,” Farris said. “You have to utilize your story, for yourself, and for them.”