Before departing for medical school, Horizons tutor reflects on challenges, virtues of first-generation student experience

Last updated: February 22nd, 2022

Purdue senior Kiara Smith is the first in her family to attend college, a fact that she once considered to be to her detriment.

That was partly because Smith thought her background felt so different from what her peers had experienced, and she encountered few people early on in her academic journey who could relate. As a result, she struggled to find community during her freshman year.

“Being a first-generation student at Purdue can feel significant,” Smith says. “It often feels like there’s an assumption among the student body that everyone came from a white-collar background and that your parents encouraged college, which is not always the case for a lot of first-generation and low-income students. There are unique needs that first-generation students have, particularly at a school as large as Purdue, where it can be hard to find resources and support early on.”

Then, during her sophomore year, Smith had what she now calls a “career- and life-altering moment.” She was hired as a biology and chemistry tutor for Horizons Student Support Services, Purdue’s federally funded TRIO program. Among other services, Horizons provides its students with free one-on-one, small group and large group tutoring in all core math and science courses.

Purdue senior Kiara Smith stands at the Horizons front desk

Today, Smith is a senior studying biomedical science on the cusp of graduation and with multiple acceptance letters to medical school. Beyond the professional leadership experience she gained, Smith credits Horizons with helping to improve how she views her own identity and academic experience.

“Being involved with Horizons exposed me to other students like me who were talking about their backgrounds in ways that were positive,” she says. “Hearing staff talk about students’ first-generation and low-income backgrounds as an asset to them helped shift my perspective. It showed me that a lot more independence is required of first-generation students, particularly those who are responsible for their own personal and academic expenses.”

Smith says private tutoring is one of many college expenses that is frequently out of reach for first-generation and low-income students. This is another reason Smith agreed to continue in her tutoring role throughout her time at Purdue.

“I think that without some of these outside resources and interventions, Horizons students could feel like it’s their fault they’re not succeeding, when really these are very large classes in which it can be difficult to access support,” Smith says. “It can be really demoralizing. So having a tutor is very helpful academically. Having a tutor who comes from the same background is extra helpful because you can see someone who has been through it themselves and has been able to be successful despite the challenges they face.”

Smith says there is a general lack of acknowledgement of the challenges faced by first-generation and low-income students, as well as a lack of understanding about the pitfalls to which they may be vulnerable.

“A lot of the students I work with might be pursuing pre-professional degrees with plans to go to physician assistant school or medical school, but many of them, without the interventions that Horizons provides, tend to drop into majors that may not be as lucrative to their futures,” Smith says. “Many first-generation students are very vulnerable to the idea that if we don’t succeed in something here, it’s because of a personal flaw, and not because of our background or the circumstances of the classroom, or general systems in place. Mentorship can really help students feel confident to stay in careers that they’re underrepresented in. It’s important to your self-esteem to be able to be in a community that helps build your confidence and your perception of yourself.” Smith said she now feels more comfortable talking about the ways in which her background as a first-generation student intersects with her educational path.

“I think it’s about being able to take control of the narrative, versus having that narrative take control of the way you think about yourself as a student,” she says. “I’ve been able to speak with a lot more authority on the issues of first-generation students in medicine, which I think is going to be significant when I got to medical school as well, because I want to continue to advocate for those communities.”

Writer: Andrea Mattingly, Communications Director for Student Success Programs,

Source: Kiara Smith, Purdue senior studying biomedical science

Last updated: Feb. 22, 2022

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