University of South Florida


Jazmin and her father stand close. Jazmin is wearing a red cap and gown and holding her high school diploma.

Jazmin Sanchez and her father, Felipe, at her high school graduation. 

USF empowers first-generation students to achieve their dreams

By Donna Smith | University Communications and Marketing

Jazmin Sanchez’s parents immigrated to Wimauma from Mexico to join family shortly after they married in 1987. Over the years, they worked hard picking fruits and vegetables at area farms and saved so they could provide Sanchez and her two sisters endless opportunities.

“They told me that I could do anything I wanted in life, as long as I had an education and a passion,” said Sanchez, a USF sophomore studying public health. 

Sanchez’s mother, Alida, said she wants her children to go to college so that they can better their standard of living.

jazmin and her sister sit on either side of their mother

Jazmin Sanchez (left), and her sister, Erica (right), sit with their mother, Alida.

“I don’t want them to have to work as much as we do,” Alida said. “I want them to have better salaries and be able to choose careers that they love.”

Thousands of first-generation college students like Sanchez choose USF each year, and they are celebrated and supported at every point along their journey. 

While the definition of a first-generation student may vary nationally, at USF, they’re students whose parents or guardians did not complete a bachelor’s degree in the United States. USF enrollment data shows that more than 4,300 currently enrolled students are first generation, but Tony Delgado, USF assistant dean of academic inclusion, said that the number is actually higher, since that information is collected voluntarily via the FAFSA application. 

“There are many who either don’t complete the FAFSA or don’t even realize that they are first-generation, so we’re not capturing those numbers,” said Delgado, who was the first in his family to attend college. 

There are several first-generation scholarships available to offer financial support and programs that offer targeted academic assistance. Student Support Services created a portal for first-generation students on Bulls Connect, a student engagement platform, to keep them informed. The program also teaches study skills and offers personalized advising, career exploration, campus orientation and networking. Due to these efforts, more than 90 percent of first-generation USF students remain in good academic standing each year. 

Jaelyn Wise, a first-generation USF graduate from Sanford, began her college journey with Student Support Services, then later became a peer coach for the group, mentoring younger first-generation students.  

Jaelyn Wise

Jaelyn Wise, a first-generation USF graduate, now works as an advisor to first-generation students.

“Student Support Services helps you through everything, and they were always pushing me out of my comfort zone,” Wise said. “When I began mentoring and creating bonds with the students, I began to feel like a leader.”

Wise enjoyed mentoring so much, that after graduating last May with a bachelor’s degree in public health, she began a USF graduate program in curriculum and instruction with a concentration in college student affairs – and she landed a full-time job as a Student Support Services counselor.

“I love what I do. I relate to where first-gen students are coming from,” Wise said. “I love telling them my story because it shows them that college isn’t easy, but it can be done.” 

Support can begin in the summer to prepare first-generation students for fall classes. In addition to the Student Support Services summer program, Bulls to Business and the New Bulls Scholars programs offer first-generation students a summer boost, where they learn about campus resources, skills needed to be successful and more.   

A person behind a table hands some swag over to a first-gen student


two people smile as they hold a t-shirt that reads, "proud first-gen" and has the usf bull horns logo


A person behind a table hands a t-shirt that reads proud first gen to a student


On Nov. 8, National First-Generation College Celebration Day, all three USF campuses celebrated first-generation students with events including food, giveaways, story sharing and photo-opportunities. Delgado says that the celebrations offer another type of validation and support and help demonstrate that earning a degree is challenging, but doable. 

“Bringing the first-gen community together is a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness of the resources we offer them, as well as a chance to share stories about their experiences and challenges,” Delgado said. 

Many USF faculty, staff and leaders were first-generation students, including President Rhea Law, who worked at USF as she earned her undergraduate degree in management, before moving on to earn her law degree at Stetson University College of Law. She said the encouragement she received from the faculty and staff at USF helped her to believe in herself and move forward. Her experience made her see the importance of passing on that support.

“First-generation students are important to USF because we are changing not only their lives, but the lives of their families,” Law said. “We're making a significant difference for them and for their communities for years to come.”

See President Law discuss her experience as a first-generation student at USF:

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