How to Keep First-generation Students Engaged Throughout the Academic Year

How to keep first-generation students engaged throughout the academic year

Opinion | Meaningful support of first-generation students requires pathways that focus on young learners and engage them as leaders of their own and their peers’ success. Before first-generation students even step foot on campus, institutions can create a funnel of partnerships that will sustain them throughout their four years of study while providing support to the incoming class.

This is no small matter. The retention rate in the US for all first-generation students from 2022 to 2023 was 88.51 percent. Successful measures to promote this based on Chapman University’s experience include creating physical spaces where first-generation and transfer students feel they belong, explicit support in the transition to university life, peer-to-peer mentoring, and an appreciation of diverse cultures on campus. Welcoming events.

The retention rate for first-generation students participating in the Promising Futures Program (PFP) at Chapman was 89.89 percent for fall 2022 to 2023.

Here’s how we do it.

Create a space where students and staff can meet in a comfortable environment
The Cross-Cultural Center (CCC) is a physical space on campus for students to gather, study, socialize, and build a sense of community and belonging. We encourage students to explore, celebrate, and share their diverse cultures, ideologies, and traditions, recognizing that first-generation students may have diverse intersectionalities. Its purpose is to improve outreach/recruitment, retention, and graduation rates for all of our student populations. CCC allows diverse and affinity-based staff and faculty to meet and interact with students.

Reg Chen Stewart, vice president of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, reorganized the Cross-Cultural Center by giving PFP a “home” within the CCC and providing two full-time staff members. PFP is proud to receive the First Gen Forward designation from the First Scholars Network of the Center for First-Generation Student Success within the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).

Enhance summer bridge programming to develop confidence and leadership skills
Many universities offer summer bridge programs to help first-generation students transfer to a four-year university. Promising Futures at Chapman University is a four-day hybrid program that introduces first-year and transfer (mentee) students to the university and the larger first-generation community.

Within the program, student volunteers, called Promising Futures Leaders (PFLs), serve as mentors. Professional staff from the DEI office train them to guide incoming students through workshops such as “Re-establishing Yourself in Your Role as a PFL” and “Expectations and Formalities of a PFL.” The training is a way to support incoming first-generation students while also providing professional development opportunities to upperclassmen.

Collaboration with departments across campus includes workshops on how families can assist their students with college admissions and financial aid as well as answering families’ questions. These initiatives help families and students identify campus contacts they can turn to for support.

Offer first-generation peer-to-peer mentoring

Peer-to-peer mentoring helps build authentic relationships in a space supported by staff and faculty. In a safe environment that is conducive to learning and developing an overall sense of belonging, all participants can build community, creativity, and resilience.

Incoming students benefit from PFL’s support to feel included and more comfortable in communicating openly and freely. PFL’s knowledge base provides disciples with resources, networking connections, and accountability for their goals and aspirations. Trainees can find trustworthy role models who will listen without judgment and are willing to help fellow first-generation students through challenges.

Being part of peer mentoring has inspired Summer Bridge trainees to return and become PFLs themselves. They can return each year as peer mentors to continue their civic engagement, and professional development, and improve their self-confidence.

PFLs are assigned their advisory groups but are also expected to provide presentations and workshops to other groups and interact with all students during the program. Producing and facilitating presentations, workshops, and student panels provides PFLs with an opportunity for self-reflection, culminating in leadership skills and professional development. Sharing experiences through student panels, PFL helps trainees identify their needs and fears and validate their feelings during their college transition.

Throughout the year, PFL and interns can volunteer at events including our First Generation Graduates and our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Homecoming Barbecues. As volunteers, students can practice their leadership skills and become more integrated into the Chapman community. We believe exposure to these opportunities is essential to student development. Many of our programs are designed for first-generation students, but all current and prospective students are welcome at CCC.

Araceli Martínez is the Executive Director of the Cross-Cultural Center and First-Generation Programs, and Athina Cuevas is the Assistant Director of the Promising Futures First-Generation Program and Cross-Cultural Center at Chapman University.


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