How Arizona Western College made first-gen support networks more visible

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How Arizona Western College made first-gen support networks more visible

First-generation students tend to feel as if they don’t belong on campus, even though they met your admission requirements. And students who doubt their place in college may drop out, according to Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University‘s Center on Education and the Workforce.

66%

of students at Arizona Western College identify as first-generation
of students at Arizona Western College identify as first-generation

At Arizona Western College (AWC), campus leaders understand how insidious self-doubt is—because many of them started as first-gen students, too, writes Ashley Smith for Inside Higher Ed.

AWC boasts the largest proportion (66%) of first-gen students in the state. And about 40% of AWC faculty and staff self-identify as first-gen, including Daniel Corr, the college’s president.

Many students don’t just wrestle with their first-gen status, some face poverty, too, says Corr. But the college believes the first step to eliminate poverty in their community is to educate—and graduate—their low-income, first-gen students, writes Smith.

40%

of Arizona Western College's faculty and staff identify as first-generation
of Arizona Western College’s faculty and staff identify as first-generation

About 22% of AWC students have a family income of less than $20,000, according to the Community College Benchmark Project. The same report ranked AWC as a national leader in social mobility. When AWC students earn a credential or degree, they “move up two quintiles on income,” says Corr.

With the stakes that high, campus leaders wanted to make sure students could see the vast support network of former first-gen students available to them.  To make first-gen allies more visible, the college launched an “I Am First Gen” campaign last year. Students and faculty wore bright yellow “I Am First Gen” t-shirts and established a First-Generation College Student Day in November.

After all, “because first-generation college students are not a homogeneous group and many may not identify as first-generation college students at all, it can be difficult for them to recognize and connect with resources that are dedicated to them on campus,” according to EAB research. “It is important that institutions proactively outreach to their first-generation college student populations to share positive messaging and information about their identity, and connect them with key resources and peer groups.”

When first-gen students and faculty wear the shirts, it shows they’re proud to be here, says Aryca Arizaga Marron, a psychology professor and first-gen AWC alumna. We want to tell first-gen students “you belong here,” says Corr.

Here’s how other colleges deliver positive identity-based messaging and build first-gen student support networks:

  • Georgetown developed a Thrive Guide to address questions that a student’s parents might not be able to help with if they did not attend college;
  • Like AWC, The University of Rochester developed a campaign for faculty and staff to both visibly show their support of first-gen students and help these students find the resources they need; and
  • The University of Texas at San Antonio created “familias,” groups of 20 to 30 first-gen students and a first-gen faculty mentor who meet regularly to discuss their experiences.

Sources: EAB research, accessed 11/4/19; EAB research, 11/22/16; EAB research, 3/10/16; Musso, VOA “Learning English, 10/29/16; Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 4/11/18; Ayala, Dallas Morning News, 12/31/17

Read more about first-gen student success