Elevating First-Gen Student Success

Sarah Whitley is the Senior Director of the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative between NASPA and The Suder Foundation, a small family foundation created by Eric and Deb Suder. Eric, a first-generation college graduate, was contributing to scholarship funds at universities around first-gen initiatives and found that first-gen students still weren’t graduating. The Center was born out of conversations around how NASPA could utilize the First Scholars model directly with colleges and universities to improve first-gen student success, through evidence-based practice, research, and resources.

Insights & Outlooks: What are some of the myths and misconceptions about first-generation students that exist?

Sarah Whitley, NASPA: Oh my gosh, there’s so many. We don’t always do a great job understanding who first-generation students are, the actual profile. There are misconceptions that first-generation students are all low-income, which is not true. I am first-generation, and I was not Pell-eligible when I went to college, and so I was not considered low-income. About 40-50 percent of first-generation students, some data says upwards of 60 percent, are low-income but not all first-generation students are low-income.

Not all first-generation students are from a minority racial or ethnic background. That’s a misconception that we often hear. We also hear that first-gen students are not academically prepared. That is a huge myth and misconception. We have really, incredibly bright first-generation students and they’re the most resilient population around, and they bring rich experiences and, often, much to contribute in the classroom. It’s often a misconception that they’re not academically prepared. Another is that they don’t have supportive families or parents, that their parents didn’t want them to go to college, that they’re angry with them about going. In reality, there’s a spectrum: there are families out there who think going to college, it’s a lot of money, that the return on investment is not there. There are other families on the other end of that spectrum who have been trying to get their kids to go to college since they were born and that has been the reason that they’ve made strides.

With this multitude of misconceptions, our work has been deeply committed to raising awareness around the first-generation identity and helping students become proud of that identity. Another misconception is a belief that first-generation students don’t want to be identified. In some ways there’s some truth to that because they don’t understand their own identity, but the way that they can actually capitalize upon their identity and their experiences to really help them be better members of their community, to learn more, to ask questions, to be contributors in the classroom. There is a lot of deficit-based thinking about first-gen students that, for most intents and purposes, is unnecessary and counterproductive.

Insights & Outlooks: Is there a favorite story that you can share with readers of Insights & Outlooks about a campus that is pioneering new approaches to help first-gen students succeed?

Sarah Whitley, NASPA: There are so many campuses doing so much good work and it’s hard to even pick just a few. North Central College is a small institution just outside of Chicago that built an office for first-gen, a program called Cardinal First, and has incredible faculty buy-in. It’s everything from first-year workshops to sophomore suppers where they have faculty host dinners. They think about how to support students as they are preparing to graduate and enter the workforce. They have students who actively participated and go on to be mentors in that program. It’s really comprehensive, and it has all been an institutionally-supported and homegrown effort that North Central has really pioneered locally. One thing that I really appreciate is how they use scholarships to incentivize completion. Once students complete a set of workshops and return for the next year of college, they get a $500.00 book scholarship when they return. It’s not only an incentive to complete the program, but it’s an incentive to return for the next year as well.

Northern Arizona University is a national leader in first-generation work and have been committed to it for over 30 years. Their commitment is so impressive. At Florida State University, Tadarrayl Starke’s CARE (Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement) Program is just phenomenal. I would say the unique part of what they do is they have intentionally networked services, so they’re thinking about first-gen students in admissions, career services, academic support, everywhere. The entire University of California system has such a deep commitment to the first-gen work. It’s so impressive, the work that they’re leading, and doing a really nice job of thinking about how first-generation issues intersect with undocumented student needs and issues like emergency aid services and food insecurity.

Insights & Outlooks: Are there recommendations or solutions for federal policy that NASPA supports that you think can drive improvements in first-gen student success?

Sarah Whitley, NASPA: Of course, we’re following the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act very closely. We work closely with the Council for Opportunity and Education and are keeping up with any impact that changes to federal policy would have on funding for student support programs funded by TRIO grants. We’re also continuing our commitment to emergency aid programs, and we do find that very often emergency aid opportunities can be extremely beneficial for first-gen students experiencing financial insecurity.

Changes to the Affordable Care Act are another area that impact first-generation students through wellness and mental health. Some of the changes to insurance programs have reduced access to mental and emotional health services. Many first-generation students still access these things through their own health insurance providers, if they have health insurance, in addition to going through campus counseling centers. Then, there’s been discussion as a part of the Higher Education Act reauthorization about the possibility of having the first-gen identifier added to IPEDS, and that would really change the world. Far too often I hear from colleges and universities, “We were an early adopter. We were a pioneer around first-gen  We’ve been doing this for 15, 20 plus years, but we still don’t know who our peer institutions are in the first-gen world.” It is difficult to find accurate comparison data about what’s happening on other campuses and part of that is because, we can’t get those insights through IPEDS.

Insights & Outlooks: Do you feel like this is finally breaking through and gaining traction in national conversations or what’s your take on that?

Sarah Whitley, NASPA:  Absolutely, yes! We can hardly keep up with the demand. If it’s any indication, the Center has expanded staffing in the last year to help us think about how we support the needs of this population. Of course, there were early pioneers like Northern Arizona doing this 30-plus years ago, but at the end of the day I would say that in the last 10 years, the first-gen conversation has slowly been working its way into everyday discussion on campuses whether institutions are re-considering the needs of their Pell-eligible students, building a summer bridge program or creating other new efforts. Other institutions are thinking about special scholarship programs. We’re seeing now that our campuses are really understanding that first-generation students are in every part of their campus community: we can’t just put them all in one office or have them all served by one program.

So how do we think about networking those services so that students are fully aware of all the opportunities available to them?

We are seeing an incredible jump in media attention around first-gen, we’re seeing more scholarly work published on first-gen, dissertations being written on first-generation students. For students, I believe that there’s a greater desire to be personally recognized as first-gen, that move from saying, “This is an identity that I want to hide,” to, “This is something that I want to be proud of, and I want to demand my college or university to support this, to support people like me.” We also see a real push from people on campuses who are first-gen saying, “We could do more. We could do right by our first-generation students.” In June of 2019, NASPA will host our First-Generation Student Success conference, part of a larger co-located conference on student success. We’ve been overwhelmed with interest in that already. We have a partnership with the National Resource Center on the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition for this conference and their Institute on First-Generation College Students. The conversations are endless.

Insights & Outlooks: How about you personally, what inspires you to do this work on behalf of first-gen students?

Sarah Whitley, NASPA: I am first-generation personally. I was really fortunate to be on the end of the spectrum with super supportive parents. It was never a moment in my life when I didn’t know I was going to college and my parents did a lot of things along the way to really make that possible for me. They took some almost drastic measures in their lives to make sure that I had the finances to go to college and have now supported me as I pursued not only my undergraduate degree, but also advanced degrees. I didn’t know I was first-gen when I was in college. I was a part of that time period when we didn’t really talk about it.

Having opportunities to see the real potential and resilience within these students, I see myself reflected in a lot of them, working hard to learn about my surroundings to gain the necessary cultural capital. Today’s students experience moments of impostor syndrome but should longer feel the need to ask themselves, “What am I doing here? Is this really the right thing for me?” Because they do belong, and our society needs them.

It’s inspiring when you get to have phone calls with colleagues at colleges and universities, and you talk to those practitioners who are doing this work day in and day out, and are so proud of their students, and they’re just looking for more support and more resources, and more ways to help two, five, 250, 1,000 more students to allow them to graduate.

At the end of the day, without fail, those conversations with practitioners and scholars always turn into, “Let me tell you a story about my students. Let me tell you about the ways that they’re being resilient, the things that they’ve overcome.” Then, I know through my work that we have to keep working to improve outcomes for those students. I hate to see a student get a portion of the way through the process and not complete. I want to see them persist because it does translate into better job opportunities, better housing solutions, better opportunities for their families, better opportunities for them to participate civically. For me all of those things make doing the work–all day every day–totally worth it. It’s nice to be able to give back to a population that you personally identify with, too.