Embracing First-Generation Students: The I’m First Project

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First-generation college students, particularly those who come from a low-income background, face a unique set of challenges when applying to college and then completing their education. Statistics show that nearly 30 percent of college students today are first-generation, low-income and that 89% of those students won’t obtain a degree within 6 years of enrollment. The troubling graduation rates show that colleges and universities across the nation can do more to engage first-gen students and provide them with necessary resources to in their education. It was with this in mind that the Center for Student Opportunity (CSO), a nonprofit organization, launched the “I’m Firstproject on October 2 of this year. Partner institutions at both the college and high school levels have already begun leveraging the program to help in recruiting first-gen students and improving retention and graduation rates.

Center for Student Opportunity has been in existence for the past 7 years and the I’m First project was in beta testing for about a year from 2012 until the national rollout on Oct. 2. I’m First received funding from a grant awarded to CSO by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the College Knowledge Challenge. According to Krista D’Amelio of CSO and I’m First, “we were picked as one of 20 winners to receive funding to increase the capabilities of utilizing Facebook and other social networking sites and tools to help students, in particular first-generation students, through the college process, meeting them where they’re at and being able to provide resources that they need.” The project utilizes social media in a variety of ways to help achieve its goals. One of the tangible benefits for the program is that they offer a scholarship for first-generation freshmen. This year, the scholarship was awarded to 8 students, who will join 27 of their peers currently receiving I’m First scholarships at partnering institutions. One of the obligations in being a scholarship recipient is to maintain a blog. According to D’Amelio, with the blogs, “they can document their experience and the changes in their support systems, not only while being bloggers for us, but also document how the campus itself is supporting them in their efforts to succeed and graduate.” The idea of creating a blog space for first-gens is for students to share their stories in order to support and encourage each other. The Executive Director of the CSO, Matt Rubinoff, was inspired by the messages of support in the “It Gets Better” campaign in support of the LBGT community when planning I’m First. It was with that inspiration in mind that the program implemented the strategy of community building through shared stories. This process goes far beyond the blogging of scholarship winners. According to Rubinoff, “we’re collecting user-created YouTube videos from first-generation college students and graduates to share their stories and give some advice to the next generation of students who will be first.” This not only will allow the program to expand its immediate reach through networking and storytelling, but will allow for ongoing growth. As each new class of first-generation students prepares for college, they will have a valuable resource for gaining information and advice from those who came before them.

The blogging and social media create a space where all first-gen students can find help and hear how others in their position have been able to overcome similar challenges. For many first-gen students, those challenges start with financial obstacles. Even for those first-gen students who aren’t low-income, they might just not have the knowledge of what scholarships are available and how to apply for them. The complex structures of college applications, financial aid applications and preparing for college can be a daunting challenge. As a first-gen student herself, Krista D’Amelio understands their unique challenges: “Outside of financial challenges there are also location challenges: ‘do I want to go far away from my family? Can my family afford for me to go far away?’ A lot of first-gens are also contributors to their household. It becomes a challenge to branch away from that and be able to attend college and to have their family understand that being a student is also a full-time job. So, a lot of these challenges stem from a lack of mentorship and the lack of experience from the environment around them.” In addition to allowing first-gen students to share their stories in support of one another, the program also helps students in finding the right institutions for them, addressing the location needs.

Moreover, I’m First gets more hands on with their Dashboard, which connects students to partner institutions.  By signing up with the Dashboard, students can find institutions on their own and contact them to show that they are interested. The Dashboard also provides a checklist for everything students need to know and prepare for college and it helps with overall navigation. To really begin helping first-gen students, I’m First begins engaging with students at the high school level. In this effort D’Amelio states that “we partner with different community-based organizations, we have relationships with a number of high school guidance counselors as well other youth-serving organizations, college prep charter schools, things of that nature.” So, the  I’m First project begins engagement at the High School level, using its community-based partnerships to spread awareness. From there they provide resources to help student navigate the process and provide a space for community support.

What Can Colleges and University’s Do to Leverage the Program?

Higher Education institutions that are looking to promote and strengthen their efforts on behalf of first-generation college students can leverage the program in a variety of ways. Leykia Brill, the Associate Dean of Admission & Coordinator of Diversity Outreach at Amherst College said of their partnership with CSO, “We went to full membership 2 years ago and gained things behind the scenes, such as access to community-based organizations, contacts and student info. We went from making a small donation to partnering full-time.” Partnership would be one angle, but other institutions can also direct students to I’m First as a resource for first-gen students to find support.

The partnership with Amherst has benefitted the college as well as students. Brill said of the partnership, “I think very tangibly, you’ll see that we’ve had I’m First students win scholarships and be able to come to Amherst. Also, we can specifically link students who are applying to college to Amherst by having our info and publications on the web highlights and details the financial benefits of attending a school like Amherst. Students who are first-gen might not have the funds, or might not think they have the funds, to be able to afford an education at a place like Amherst can discover how they can afford it.” This means that project can be used as a way to get their message out to students, sharing what resources and options are available.

For Amherst, this program and its benefits are very timely. According to Brill, “We’ve increased from having 10% first-gen students to 17% in 2013, and in 2009/2010 we saw our highest numbers of first gen students.” This is a trend that is expected to grow in higher education. As such it is imperative that colleges and universities begin thinking about the challenges first-generation students are facing. Where a college education once was a luxury of the few, it is becoming a necessity for the majority of U.S. citizens. As such, the landscape of higher education has changed and is continuing to change. A more diverse student population is emerging, which includes students that might not have been a part of the college environment in decades past. It is for this reason that projects like CSO’s I’m First will continue to grow as they become more needed, and higher education will need to grow with them.

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