New Living Learning Community Caters to First-Generation Students

portrait of Mary Jane Partain

Mary Jane Partain

Mary Jane Partain grew up in a family where no one had gone to college. Most of her relatives back in the Philippines hadn’t graduated from high school. So when she landed on a college campus in the U.S., she had to learn how to navigate academic life on her own.

She had no awareness of the resources that are available to help college students succeed. Working full time to make ends meet while taking classes left her little time to explore.

“I never even reached out. I didn’t know about funding resources. I didn’t know they had a health center and a career center,” said Partain, director of Living Learning Communities (LLC) at The University of Texas at Dallas.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until someone tells you.”

Now Partain is helping to organize an initiative to help new freshmen who are the first in their families to pursue a four-year college degree.

Starting next fall, the new First Generation Living Learning Community will help students whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. gain a sense of belonging and awareness of resources available.

Participants will live in a wing of Residence Hall Northwest, take classes together, have networking opportunities with faculty and staff, receive mentorship, enjoy cultural experiences and join in service activities. They also will receive practical guidance on financial assistance, successfully registering for classes and applying for housing.

UT Dallas Living Learning Communities

students studying in Res Hall West

Students in Living Learning Communities share academic goals and interests. They live in designated residence halls or apartments, enroll in community-specific courses and participate in group activities designed to enhance learning.

The goal is to provide a sense of belonging and a support network that helps first-generation students navigate the University, said Courtney Brecheen MPA'09, associate dean of undergraduate education and staff advisor for the new LLC.

“We just want to break down as many barriers as we can. Regardless of race or socioeconomic background, being first generation can lead to unintentional knowledge gaps that can sometimes prevent students from maximizing their undergraduate experience,” Brecheen said.

The new LLC is modeled after similar programs at other universities — including The University of Texas at San Antonio. UT Dallas organizers are recruiting mentors from faculty and staff who were first-generation college students themselves and understand the unique challenges.

“First-generation students often don’t want to say they’re the first in their family to go to college because they think it’s admitting they don’t have the same resources as other students, or they’re afraid they’ll be looked down on as ‘less than,’” Partain said.

Being the first in a family to go to college brings additional pressure to succeed and be a role model for other relatives and friends, Partain said.

“There’s a lot on their shoulders. My mother would tell me, ‘Remember, people are watching you,’” Partain said.

For first-generation students who haven’t had anyone “blaze the path for them,” the new Living Learning Community will provide targeted support from mentors and like-minded peers, she said.

“I had to walk through the system blind. Today, my stepson doesn’t have to guess how and when to apply for housing. If you see successful people who look like you, it makes it easier,” Partain said.  

The First Generation Living Learning Community is open to freshmen of all majors starting in fall 2018. Applications are being accepted now.

UT Dallas faculty and staff who were first-generation students and want to become mentors in the new LLC can sign up here.

Residence Hall Northwest

Students in the new First Generation Living Learning Community will live in Residence Hall Northwest.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].