Historically across the United States, first-generation college students have been underrepresented in higher education. As a result, colleges have worked to increase access and enrollment for this population. Bellarmine University is no exception: 35 percent of Bellarmine’s incoming first-year class consists of first-generation students. But while more such students are enrolling in college nationally, this population is still less likely to graduate than other students. A significant amount of research in the field of higher education indicates a need for additional academic and social services to support first-generation students, both in their transition to college and in their continued success once there.
Who can provide this support? Faculty, staff, administrators, advisors, supervisors, members of the campus community, peers, mentors and parents can all aid in the effort. Below are some ideas about how to do so. But first, it may help to better define the issue.
First, WHO is a first-generation college student? The definition can vary from organization to organization, but at Bellarmine, first-generation college students are those who self-identify as having no parent who graduated from a four-year university.
WHY provide additional programming and support for first-generation college students? It’s important to remember that simply being a first-generation student is not an indication that a student will fail. Rather, some of the characteristics that may come along with being first generation are indicators that a student may have more difficulty remaining in school than students whose parents have college degrees. Examples include low-income status, the need to work longer hours while in school, higher levels of family responsibility and level of college readiness. Bellarmine has a variety of programs and services specifically designed for this population of students. In addition, what is good for all students is also good for first-generation students.
WHAT can you do as a member of the campus community to help support first-generation college students? We must be sure that these students are aware of and feel comfortable accessing available university resources. Countless times in my career I’ve told a student, “I may not know the answer, but I can absolutely help find the person who does know.” No matter your role in the Bellarmine community, you can connect students to resources and practices that have been proven to increase persistence to graduation.
Initiatives specific to first-generation students
- Pioneer Scholars: Pioneer Scholars is a peer-mentoring program that supports first-generation college students through weekly programs led by older first-generation students.
- #I’mFirst Campaign: All faculty and staff who were first-generation college students are encouraged to register with the #I’mFirst Campaign and receive a button to wear and a sticker to display. The campaign creates a sense of belonging and is also a way to celebrate FGCS.
- First Generation Faculty-Staff Mentorship: This pilot initiative provides an opportunity for first-generation students to connect with a first-generation faculty or staff member.
- Study Abroad Scholarships: The Office of Study Abroad and International Learning (OSAIL) offers study abroad scholarships specifically for first-generation students.
- Academic Services: Tutoring and writing support in college is not just for students who are struggling. All students should access academic services early and often. Encourage students to visit the Tutoring Center and the Writing Center.
- High Impact Practices: These are well-researched practices that have proved to have significant impact on student learning and development. It’s important to connect first-generation students to some of these opportunities, which include learning communities, undergraduate research, service learning/community-based learning and internships.
- Financial Aid Support: Encourage students to talk to the Financial Aid office if they have any financial concerns or are interested in a paid work-study position on campus.
- Office of Identity and Inclusion (OII): OII provides opportunities to engage students in identity exploration, cultural humility and social justice.
Campus Ministry: Campus Ministry provides activities and programs that foster spiritual development.
Bellarmine University strives to support all enrolled students. These academic and social programs can greatly increase the likelihood that first-generation students will become the first in their families to complete a college degree and earn a diploma.
By Kristen N. Wallitsch, Ph.D.
Dr. Kristen Wallitsch is associate dean of Academic Support for Student Success at Bellarmine University.