Two years ago, when Jesse McCain began his doctoral program in higher education at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, he noticed the energy across Grounds supporting first-generation undergraduate students at UVA. As someone who worked in student and academic affairs for five years prior to pursuing a Ph.D. and as a student whose research interests sit at the intersection of inequality in graduate school and professional identity, he noticed a lack of engagement happening on the same level for graduate students.
“I would meet other first-generation students pursuing their graduate degrees who were surprised that I was interested in that aspect of their background, and we would often talk about the unique challenges of being first-gen in graduate school,” McCain said. “This includes struggles with belonging, self-doubt tied to feelings of being an imposter in academic spaces, managing family responsibilities, and navigating professional life.”
As a part of his doctoral program, he worked with his advisor, Josipa Roksa, professor of sociology and education, on a university-wide survey for first-generation graduate students at UVA to share their experiences. The survey garnered over 200 responses from across the University. They defined “first-generation” as a student who is first in his or her family to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree.
“Both my conversations with other graduate students and the data from the survey made it clear to me that there was a need and opportunity to make this community more visible,” McCain said.
McCain, along with co-president Ivana Brancaccio, a second-year MBA student in the Darden School of Business, are leading the First-Generation Graduate Student Coalition (FGSC), a new student organization at UVA committed to supporting and empowering first-generation college students who are now pursuing their graduate degrees. The FGSC connects with students through community building, professional development, and institutional visibility.
“Ultimately, the FGSC is about helping first-generation graduate students make meaningful connections with others who share similar struggles and perspectives,” McCain said. “We hope to provide a community and support network, and a place where first-gen graduate students can be comfortable in talking about more vulnerable topics.”
McCain’s vision for the FGSC is that it empowers first-generation graduate students to engage their identities as a source of strength and asset, including resilience, bringing diverse perspectives to their programs and professional lives, and a drive to succeed and make a difference.
“In my experience this is a very passionate community, and the coalition is all about gathering this energy in one place to inspire important conversations and change at UVA,” McCain said.
Both McCain and Brancaccio lead this organization as first-generation students themselves.
“I’m incredibly humbled and proud to help co-lead this coalition with Jesse,” Brancaccio said. “As the first person in my family to attend college, I never truly reflected on my journey. Both my parents are drapery-makers and at a young age, I remember them telling me how they wanted me to have a better future: one where I could work with my mind instead of my hands.”
McCain hopes to inspire those around him to realize their greatest potential.
“Leading this organization means a tremendous amount to me because our vision reflects core aspects of my life and who I am,” McCain said. “As first-generation students, sharing our stories is about celebrating what it means to be the first in our families to go to college, and this is extremely valuable work to be a part of.”
The FGSC is in the process of establishing an initial community, and they are interested in connecting with first-gen graduate students across the university to help learn more about their experiences and needs.
In addition to creating opportunities for community building, including dinners among other first-gen graduate students and faculty, professional development events, and networking receptions, the FGSC will be hosting a kick-off event on UVA’s lawn on Thursday, October 7th in the afternoon. We’ll have lawn games, refreshments and snacks, and special guests UVA President Jim Ryan, Vice President of Student Affairs Robyn Hadley, and Associate Vice Provost and Director of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs Phil Trella will also be in attendance.
To learn more about the FGSC or get involved, please email [email protected] to subscribe to our email list and follow @firstgengradsuva on Instagram to stay up to date on events and programming.