Learning Curve

Orienting the Family: A One-Day Program for the Families of First-Generation Students

Jessica Rouser

Director of Scholarship and Financial Aid
University of Detroit Mercy

Sarah Garrison

Director of Bar Preparation
University of Detroit Mercy School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2022


Entering an institution of professional learning is terrifying. There are too many new experiences to count, and the workload is overwhelming.  For some, the stories and advice from past generations will ease fears or at least temper the unknowns.  For others, in increasing numbers, they have no such person(s) to turn to for guidance and shared experiences because they are the first to attempt an education at a professional level; they are first-generation students. First-generation students have many things going for them – ambition, hope, fortitude – but they face challenges, some of which come from within their support systems.

My institution proudly welcomed over 100 first-generation law students in the fall of 2021.1 This number was nearly 80% of our first-year class.2  We and other institutions across the country have noticed this trend in the last 3-5 years. The increase in this student population created additional needs that stretched past the conventional academic programming that we were providing to all first-year students.  Some of our first-generation students were behind and struggling with the non-academic side of law school. They did not know the value of or art of networking, they were frustrated by financial aid concerns, and they were starting or finishing law school during a pandemic.  Additionally, they felt alone because their families (parents, spouses, siblings, etc.) did not understand what they were experiencing and did not understand the pressures of law school. We decided that in addition to supporting our students academically, we also needed to educate their families on the great endeavor their family member was embarking upon, the challenges they would face, and the support they could and should give at home.  Thus, the idea of a Family Orientation Day was born.

Overview of the Family Orientation Day

Family Orientation Day starts the process of educating our first-generation families about their students and the realities of law school.  One of our goals is to alleviate some of the burdens and responsibilities placed on first-generation students by making families aware of the time commitment required for both populations. The purpose is to foster a sense of belonging and demonstrate that these students are not alone, nor are their families. The program will be held during the traditional orientation week as a half-day event. By hosting it during the traditional orientation week, we hope students will not feel singled out with special programming during their first weeks of school and show the importance (and legitimacy) by hosting it during the official orientation time.

Targeting the Right Objectives

When targeting the objectives of Family Orientation Day, we knew we had to start with the areas that affected our first-generation students the most. We also considered areas that could impact their family members. After much research and speaking with our students, we narrowed the areas to those concerning financial assistance, academic load, and building a support network.

Session 1 – Financial Assistance

First-generation law students borrow to finance their education at a rate of 93%, a rate nearly 10% higher than their peers.3 In addition to being more likely to borrow, they also borrow 24% more than their non-first-generation peers.4 They also spend 25% more time working for pay than their counterparts.5 As a regional law school, many of our students live at home and are an integral part of their family’s social and economic structure. They not only work to defer their education costs but also to be contributing members of their family income. First-generation students financially supporting their families was even more prevalent during the pandemic. It was common for our students to increase their budgets to take out more student loan debt or work far more than the recommended weekly hours to help pay for family expenses. It became apparent that the pressures, real and perceived, being felt at home to contribute financially would  have lasting ramifications on a student’s financial well-being. Therefore, it became an objective to educate families on the financial opportunities and obligations associated with law school.

This breakout session will focus on the differences between undergraduate and graduate federal financing and the proper and improper uses of the funds. It is also critical for families to understand the realities of their student’s earning capacity and to counter the misconception that all lawyers are higher earners. First-generation students are more likely to work in small firms (25 employees or fewer)6 with lower starting salaries than the perceived attorney income.  Many of our students also indicated an interest in our institution because of our commitment to the community and their desire to practice in public service. As a result, this session will wrap up with earning potential at different sized firms and public service positions and, statistically, where students at our institution settle. We will also briefly talk to families about loan repayment options for our students, focusing on the accessibility of income-driven repayment plans.

Session 2 -Academic Load

The next breakout session will focus on the academic rigors facing their students. It is important for families to understand that undergraduate work is quite different from graduate studies and especially the study of law.  Explaining this difference is something the academic support world stresses with the students before they enter school and in their first several months; it is imperative for that message to be explained to the families as well. As stated earlier, many of our students live at home. They have obligations (childcare, working in the family store, caring for elderly grandparents, etc.) that are helpful and sometimes critical to their family’s success. These obligations do not change once law school begins, but tensions can arise when the student needs to pull back due to their increased academic workload.  It is difficult for families (and most students) to comprehend the shift from undergraduate work to law school.  We use

phrases like “get you to think like a lawyer” and “think critically,” but we do not directly discuss the 40-50 pages of reading each night, creation of case briefs, deciphering foreign vocabulary, or the supplemental resources required to “think like a lawyer.”  It became clear that we needed to outline the increased workload so families would better understand if their students could not always fulfill family obligations they had in the past due to schoolwork. Thus, we will have a mock class, distribute syllabi and reading schedules for the 1L courses, and outline a typical schedule for a first-year student.

Session 3- Building a Support Network

Due to the absence of role models and mentors practicing in the legal field, our first-generation students lack the blueprint to network and create a successful career path. Luckily for the students, the Career Services Office assists in multiple ways to show them how to open doors and impress those inside once you walk through those doors. It is important to highlight to the families the vast number of services provided to their students, but we also wanted to give families access to a network of first-generation alumni for the day. We also anticipate that families (parents, spouses, etc.) will create their own support network with the other families present. This breakout session will bring together first-generation alumni from the bench and the bar and also family members of those alumni for a small panel discussion with our families. The panelists will share their own experiences as first-generation students and what would have helped them during their time as a student. The family members of the alumni on the panel will share the challenges they faced while supporting their student and also what tools and resources would have helped them as a family member. The goal is to give the families a sense of belonging within the school community and provide them an opportunity to ask questions about the law school or the legal community  from individuals who have experienced (in some part) what their students likely will experience. This session will immediately be followed by a luncheon where the students, families, and alumni can continue conversations in a more informal setting. To facilitate continued conversations, there will be ice-breaker activities present at each table with Detroit Mercy Law staff members and current students socializing between the tables to help the families establish peer support connections.

Building Community Success

Securing avenues of success for our first-generation students is at the heart of this program. Expanding student support beyond the walls of an institution can only aid in this endeavor.  The specific needs of students will differ among institutions (and can be modified based on the student population), but by educating families on the support needed and including them in our process, we can build a bigger community of support for each student.

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1 During the traditional Fall 2021 orientation (the week before classes start), students completed a diversity survey where they self-selected attributes such as ethnicity or gender.  This survey also asked if they were first-generation students.  In preparation for Fall 2022 orientation, when this program will take place, we plan to send this survey out early in the summer so as to identify the first-generation students and families early and market the program.

2 See ABA 509 Report (2021), https://law.udmercy.edu/_files/pdf/admissions/Detroit-Mercy-Law-509.pdf.

3 Jessica Tomer, First-Generation Law Students: Struggles, Solutions, and Schools that Care, National Jurist, (Mar. 22, 2019), https://www.nationaljurist.com/national-jurist-magazine/ first -generation -law -students-struggles- solutions-and-schools-care.

4 Id.

5 See LSSSE, First Generation Law Students: Use of Time, LSSSE Insights Blog (May 4, 2016), https://lssse.indiana.edu/blog/first-generation-law-students-use-of-time/.

6 Avalon Zoppo, First Generation Law Students Struggle in Post-Grad Market Compared with Peers, Study Shows, Law.com (October 20, 2021), https://www.law.com/2021/10/20/first-generation-law-students-struggle-in-post -grad -market -compared-with-peers-study-show/?slreturn=20220312195031.

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