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Carson Kuck, a third year political science major from Cochran, Georgia, poses for a portrait during the inaugural First Generation Students Celebration hosted by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation Success in the Tate Atrium on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. Kuck started the event, in coordination with the university, to provide resources for other first generation college students to help them with the many issues they face starting college. (Photo/Caroline Barnes)

When he came to the University of Georgia in 2017, senior Carson Kuck saw the absence of student-made programs and organizations that could foster a community for first-generation students. Kuck, a political science major and first-generation student himself, wanted to change that.

Kuck, who also serves as treasurer of the Student Government Association, started a program called First Gen Dawgs, which aims to help first-generation students transition into life, school and community at UGA. Kuck launched the program in August 2020, despite difficulties with COVID-19.

When Kuck was a UGA orientation leader in 2019, he realized the university did not have a single organization for first-generation students that was created by students.

“They were just like, ‘We don't feel represented, we don't feel like a community, we don't feel supported,’” Kuck said. “They would always ask if there is an organization I can join, and I was like, actually, there is not a single one — and then First Gen Dawgs was created.”

Kuck said he wanted to create a community that not only supported first-generation students but also celebrated their successes. He wanted to create a safe space for students to talk about any difficulties they face as being the first in their families to attend college and also to work on professional and social development.

Kuck has also strived to provide opportunities to first-generation students that they may not have gotten before this program. He said professional development is a main focus of the program — helping students create resumes and cover letters to get them to graduate school and beyond.

“My favorite thing is giving them opportunities to succeed, because I wish someone would give me those opportunities. And a lot of people did,” Kuck said. “But I want to open up the doors for as many first-gen students as I can.”

He also worked on a joint project with SGA in fall 2020 to provide students with easy access to study books for the LSAT, MCAT and GRE exams.

Lytzy Hernandez, a sophomore exercise and sports science major, is on the event board for First Gen Dawgs. As another first-generation student, she said coming to UGA was difficult for her, both socially and financially. She said she had no clue what she was doing when it came to college life or seeking out financial aid opportunities.

Hernandez began to look for organizations for first-generation students to help her navigate through the difficulties she was facing. She is a part of an organization called TRIO Student Support Services, a university-run program that aims to provide support to first-generation students, those who qualify for the Pell Grant and those with disabilities.

With the help of TRIO and First Gen Dawgs, she felt better connected to her community and said it helped her find her group and her identity. Her own experiences have inspired her to continue to help first-generation students to find their own identity like she found hers.

“You see people that look like you and, you know, had the same experience, and didn't really know what they were doing either at the beginning, and now we're just all like helping each other succeed and become better students, and hopefully better professionals in the future,” Hernandez said.

Leslie De Santos, a junior first-generation accounting and international business major, said she heard about the program 1st at the First through one of her classes, but could not find any information on it. She reached out to the creators of the organization and pushed for it to begin that year. She was part of its inaugural cohort in fall 2018.

1st at the First’s goal is to help freshman first-generation students foster community and develop leadership skills during their first year on campus. Santos said as a first generation student herself, she wanted to do as much as she could to help others through the difficulties she faced.

“Well, first of all, I went through it myself, so I wanted to be part of an organization that helped me better understand and get acclimated to college,” Santos said “Then I realized that there's a lot of kids out there like me, and then wanted to help by continuing an ambassador for them.”

The program has multiple workshops and leadership opportunities that can lead to becoming an ambassador for the club. Santos said the most rewarding thing that has come out of being a part of the program is being able to use her leadership skills to answer the questions that she once had herself about being a first-generation student.

To find more resources, Kuck recommended first-generation students visit FirstGenerationStudentResources.uga. This website provides multiple resources from how to join any first generation program to tips for success and financial aid.