How one academic boot camp prepares first-gen students for college

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How one academic boot camp prepares first-gen students for college

When first-generation students first arrive on campus, they are often less “college ready” than their peers, both academically and socially. First-gen students may be surprised by how difficult college-level classes are or intimidated by higher ed jargon.

To help these students find their footing, colleges in New Jersey offer an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) to prepare underrepresented students for their first year in college and a career in STEM, writes Wayne D’Orio for the Washington Post.

At the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) the EOP kicks off with a six-week summer program where students take four classes (physics, chemistry, math, English), and learn study skills. Their 15-hour-day starts at 8 a.m. and ends with a four-hour homework session supervised by upper-level students. Students aren’t allowed to use their phones, laptops, or calculators.

The schedule is intense, but students who successfully complete the program land a seat at NJIT, a college ranked sixth in the country for graduating engineers of color and 65th for social mobility, writes D’Orio.

“The program is designed to identify and strengthen areas of academic limitations and to orient them to NJIT,” reads the university website. Instructors take on “pothole duty” by filling in the gaps in students’ knowledge, says Laurence Howell, the longtime executive director of the program.

Many participants go through an initial adjustment period, writes D’Orio. When first-generation student Sabrina Vasquez started the program, she says she felt overwhelmed. But by the end of the summer, she earned recognition as a top student. “I recognize the program helped me become more confident. I’m a little quiet,” she says.

It also helped ease her transition to campus. When the fall semester started, Vasquez says she already had a group of friends to study and hang out with. And since she reviewed the course material over the summer, she says she’s doing well in her classes.

Related: 3 steps to create a summer bridge program that actually works

Statewide, New Jersey’s EOP program supports 13,449 students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds at 42 schools, from community colleges to Rutgers University, D’Orio reports. Nationwide, only 11% of low-income, first-generation college students graduate in six years. But students in New Jersey’s programs have a graduation rate of 55%.  

It’s not just first-generation students who need help learning the college ropes.

By definition, the parents of prospective first-generation students have little to no experience with higher education. Therefore, they lack the knowledge and perspective that would let them advise their children on how to prepare for college.

So, some colleges have established parent-focused college access programs to engage and educate parents of prospective first-generation students about the college application and enrollment process.

For example, the University of Southern California Neighborhood Academic Initiative has a dedicated Family Development Institute, which includes 12 Saturday seminars related to college enrollment topics, such as financial literacy.

Similarly, the Road to College program in Wichita Falls, Texas, run by local non-profit Café Con Leche and supported by Midwestern State University, asks parents to sign a contract that commits them to build a “culture of high expectations” for students (D’Orio, Washington Post, 1/6; New Jersey Institute of Technology website, accessed 1/24).

Keep reading: Two strategies to engage parents of first-generation students