Sara Bozek is excited to start her college career at Viterbo University.
The 18-year-old from Ottawa, Ill., was among 28 first-generation students who moved into the dorms Thursday and participated in special orientation activities. The oldest of her siblings, Bozek will be the first in her family to have earned a college degree after she finishes her studies in criminal psychology.
“Being a first-generation student, I didn’t know a lot of what to do before I came to campus,” she said. “My mom is a hairstylist and my dad works with airplanes. They didn’t get this experience.”
Jane Eddy, Viterbo’s director of the Academic Resource Center and TRIO student support programs, said the university unveiled a unique program to help acclimate first-generation students to campus this year. Along with the early move-in day, students participating in the program on Thursday were given a special sendoff with their families and participated in team-building and other workshops to familiarize themselves with their classmates and campus.
“The intent is to empower them,” she said, “and help them get the lay of the land and get connected.”
First-generation students at Viterbo are defined as those whose parents never attended or completed a four-year degree — and Glena Temple, Viterbo’s president, falls into that category. Estimates put 44 percent of the student body at Viterbo meeting this definition, and first-generation students face unique challenges at college due to not having familial knowledge with how the system works.
Bozek said she fell in love with the La Crosse area after visiting Grandad Bluff and would have attended either the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse or Viterbo.
Not having experienced college, all of the paperwork required even before she got to campus was a challenge for her family, but Bozek said she appreciated the way Viterbo staff members have worked to welcome her and her fellow students and help figure all these things out.
“I’m excited to break my anxiety barrier and make friends here,” she said. “I’m looking to get over that bump.”
During lunch on Thursday, professor Emily Dykman was one of the Viterbo faculty who shared her college journey with the students. Dykman was a first-generation student at Viterbo in the 1990s, and she said it was the relationships she built with faculty and classmates that helped her navigate the college maze.
When she got to college, she said she didn’t have that sense of where and how to seek the help she needed and stay pointed in the right direction. Programs like Thursday’s orientation are great because they encourage students to open up and take risks.
“How much fun will it be to see these students again in four years as adults confident and motivated to change the world,” she said. “Fall is my favorite time of the year as we are getting new students in.”