A Campus-Wide Approach to Supporting First-generation VOLs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Talisha L. Adams Ed.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville / The Center / May 01, 2020

Being a first-generation college student, as well as a first-generation high school graduate, means I am breaking the mold for generations to come. I have stepped out on the path my family has set for me so that future generations will have a better future.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT) is the flagship land-grant institution with a commitment to “enrich[ing] and elevat[ing] the citizens of the state of Tennessee.” The Knoxville campus is part of the University of Tennessee system, which includes the Chattanooga and Martin campuses, the Health Science Center in Memphis, and the Institute of Agriculture. UT enrolled 23,290 undergraduates in fall 2019, with 80% enrolling from within the state. With many pathways into the institution, UT has a strong commitment to providing access to underserved student populations. Approximately 25% of UT’s undergraduate students are first-generation, meaning their parents or legal guardians do not have a four-year college degree. The programs detailed below provide an overview of the support provided to first-generation students at UT.


The UT LEAD program supports first-generation students through intentional programming and initiatives emphasizing Leadership, Excellence and Achievement, and Diversity. In addition, first-generation students are afforded the opportunity to apply for incentive scholarships by being active participants in the UT LEAD program and earning at least a 2.75 semester GPA. Within the UT LEAD program, there are at least 15 common sections of first-year seminar classes offered for first-generation students. Furthermore, the UT LEAD program offers a first-year living learning community (LLC), where first-generation students live together in a dedicated residence hall and participate in a shared first-year seminar course. The UT LEAD LLC liaison serves as the instructor for the seminar and provides programming inside and outside of the residence hall for the students. Finally, during the fall 2019 semester, UT LEAD launched a peer mentoring program specifically to support our first-year, first-generation students. Individuals serving as peer mentors are upper-class students who identify as first-generation.

Being part of the UT LEAD program means that I have a family here at UT that I can always count on to support me. By filling the set pillars offered by UT LEAD, I am becoming a better citizen, a better member of the community, and a better student.

TRIO Student Support Services (SSS)

TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) is a program jointly funded by the institution and the U.S. Department of Education. SSS is funded to serve 250 students annually, and each year, at least two thirds of those students must be both first-generation and low-income. SSS offers smaller, more intimate classes for historically difficult courses, such as chemistry and math. The SSS program provides individual tutoring and partners with the Academic Success Center to offer supplemental instruction to students enrolled in these courses. SSS has been providing personalized services, including peer tutoring, academic coaching, cultural enrichment opportunities, summer research projects, career and graduate school readiness, and personal and social development to UT students for over 45 years. SSS also provides Supplemental Pell Grant Aid to students with an unmet need.

Financial Literacy Partnerships

In partnership with area financial institutions, including Regions Bank and the UT Federal Credit Union, SSS and the UT LEAD program provide financial literacy education and training through various workshops and programs. Workshops focus on providing information related to personal finance, credit, and budgeting. Financial literacy games and case studies are also utilized to make programs both fun and educational for our participating students. In addition, SSS and UT LEAD frequently partner with the Center for Career Development to offer career consultation and resume writing workshops. In fall 2019, the offices were able to partner with Career Development for its signature “Suit Up” event to provide professional dress scholarships to first-generation students. These scholarships, presented to students in the form of $200 gift cards, fund shopping trips to JCPenney to purchase professional business attire.

Participating in the UT LEAD program has allowed me to meet other students with diverse backgrounds and educate myself more about different cultures and the experiences of others...This has been a huge impact for me especially at the University of Tennessee, which is seen as a predominantly white school, because it showed me that physical factors should not categorize individuals.

Campus-Wide Programming

For the past two years, we have hosted campus-wide events for National First-Generation College Celebration Day and facilitated First-Generation Faculty, Staff, and Supporters Forums to share information and data about our first-generation students. In the next phase, we plan to continue to scale up our support of first-generation students by continuing to seek innovative and effective ways to support this student population. The UT LEAD program will begin to embed additional learning opportunities to increase our students’ social and cultural capital. Students will have the opportunity to increase their participation in high-impact practices, such as undergraduate research, study abroad, and service-learning. We continue to remain focused on access, inclusion, equity, and increased opportunity for our first-generation scholars.

For more information on the University of Tennesse, Knoxville's approach, please visit their website here.