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.

“[First-gen students] report feeling isolated, not belonging, and ultimately questioning their decision to attend their institution,” according to EAB research. “These thoughts quickly become very isolating when students cannot find other students going through the same things.”

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.

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.

[First-gen students] report feeling isolated, not belonging, and ultimately questioning their decision to attend their institution. These thoughts quickly become very isolating when students cannot find other students going through the same things.

EAB research

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.

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.

(Musso, VOA “Learning English, 10/29/16; Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 4/11/18).

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