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How to get first-generation student support right

April 24, 2018

It’s Thanksgiving as a first-generation college freshman. Your friends have all gone home but you’re stuck on campus because, like many first-gen students, you don’t have extra cash to spend on a plane ticket—it’s going toward tuition, or books, or food.

But if you’re a first-generation student at Florida State University, you’re not spending Thanksgiving alone. You can go to a campus office dedicated to helping students like you and where staff you’ve known since your first day will cook and eat together. They’ve been in your shoes and they know what it means to have this kind of support.

I recently sat down with Rose-May Frazier and Tadarrayl Starke, who run FSU’s programming for first-generation students. Rose-May leads Advising First, which provides College Life Coaching to first time in college (FTIC) freshmen and first-generation sophomores. Tadarrayl heads FSU’s Center for Academic Retention and Engagement (CARE), offering support and guidance for these students from before they enroll all the way to graduation and beyond. They discussed how their unique programs give first-generation students not only academic support, but a sense of pride and belonging on campus.

Ariel: What’s something our readers might not know about first-generation students?

Rose-May: First-generation students are evolving. Cohorts are vastly different from each other and some approaches may work well with one student and not with another. The key is to listen to each student, read their body language, understand what they’re not saying, and facilitate the student finding their own solution. It’s about helping the student ask the right questions: “What could I have done differently? How can I utilize the resources that exist to get through this situation?”

Tadarrayl: Some schools may underestimate the power and strength of first-generation students identifying themselves. Being first-generation is something that we celebrate. Leaders on campus, such as the student body president, university president, and provost speak positively about their own first-generation identity. If you come at it from an asset perspective, not a deficit perspective, you create community and opportunities for students to feel like they belong and can thrive.

Ariel: Being first-generation is often treated as a disadvantage. How do you find and train staff who can affirm the diverse experiences of these students?

Tadarrayl: In the hiring process, we look for people who have experience working with our population of students, whether former or informal. We sometimes ask them to give a presentation about issues that affect first-generation students or strategies to help these students succeed. Different offices that our staff work with are involved in the interview. We ask questions about candidates’ experience working with these populations to ensure they would be able to answer student questions.

Rose-May: We want to hire people who are passionate about working with students day to day. That’s what advising and college life coaching is. New hires learn how to have intentional conversations and know when it’s appropriate to refer a student to an external resource. They’re familiar with staff in other offices and know what a student would experience if they went to that particular resource.

Tadarrayl: Our students are faced with many issues that go beyond the classroom experience. Having someone who is consistent and understanding of what they encounter as they navigate college life is vital. The coaches are trained to identify issues a student might be dealing with outside of the classroom that could prevent them from staying in college and talk to them about it.

Rose-May: Our CARE coaches are located in the same building as tutoring and pre-collegiate programs, so students are seeing and meeting the coaches before they enroll at FSU. Students are engaged early and are familiar with the program when they arrive as freshmen.

Ariel: Beyond passionate and invested staff, how do you foster a supportive culture for first-generation students?

Tadarrayl: The expectation at FSU is that you will collaborate. We work very closely across different departments and divisions. The culture here is also very personal. We pick up the phone and talk to people. This allows us to build relationships with other offices so we can lean on them for support and help when we need it.

Rose-May: The collaboration creates a feeling that these are everybody’s students. We give campus partners the opportunity to host trainings to share skills and knowledge unique to their area. This allows our coaches to gain skills to better serve their students. For example, they learn how to deal with tougher conversations, like when a student has a conflict with their roommate.

Tadarrayl: We operate in a family environment, and we want to make this campus feel as small as possible. Even though there are 41,000 students at FSU, we want our students to feel like it’s about them personally. We keep growing but never lose the focus of one-on-one, and we ensure every single student has a connection point.

Tadarrayl and Rose-May’s efforts to ensure that first-generation students feel connected on FSU’s large campus have paid off. With the help of College Life Coaching, now powered by EAB’s student success platform, retention of CARE students from their sophomore to junior year increased by 11.3%. The key, they say, is to ensure their students’ voices are always present in the conversations shaping what the future looks like.


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