In Fall 2014, 3652 first year students enrolled at the University of Memphis. Forty-two percent of these students were first generation. In other words, forty-two percent of incoming University of Memphis students come from a family in which neither parent has a four year college degree.
First generation students often experience challenges along the road to graduation. For example, they are more likely to work while attending school, be financially independent from their parents, and attend college on a part-time basis. First generation students are also more likely to begin at a community college and take remedial classes. Since they don’t have a parent to model the experience of finishing a college degree, first generation students may struggle with self-doubt about whether they are college material. Although families of first generation students often want to be supportive, they may have their own struggles which demand the student’s attention or fail to understand college life. National surveys have indicated that first generation students are 20-35% less likely to graduate from college than continuing generation students (Aud, et al., 2012).
Recognizing that first generation students face a unique set of challenges, the University of Memphis has teamed up with the Suder Foundation to provide a series of programs to first generation students. Established in 2011, the First Scholars program is the longest running of these programs. First Scholars gives twenty first-time, full-time freshman a combination of financial support and programming in a supportive community each year. Building off of the success of First Scholars, the University of Memphis is launching three new initiatives: 1) The Tiger Success Institute offering workshops to first generation students about how to be successful in college: www.memphis.edu/careerservices/tsi-intro.php; 2) the Professional Development program offering training to faculty, staff, and advisors; and 3) the First Scholars Living Learning Community that will be opening in Fall 2015 in the new Centennial Hall.
The First Scholars program has demonstrated that the right support can significantly boost first generation students’ chances of success. There are many ways that faculty, staff, and advisors can support first generation students. For example, they can 1) create a welcoming environment in the classroom; 2) encourage students to ask questions and seek help when they don’t understand; 3) make students aware of psycho-social resources on campus such as tutoring, coaching or counseling; and 4) talk openly with students about their family background and college experience. Faculty, staff, and advisors can also become more involved by serving as a mentor to a first scholar. To get more information or sign up to be a mentor, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To get more information on training for faculty, staff, and students, contact the Provost’s Fellow at email@example.com. More information can also be obtained at www.memphis.edu/firstscholars.