Breaking New Ground: 5 Keys Toward becoming a First-Generation Minded Institution

Kyle Macon, Motlow State Community College / The Center / November 01, 2023

Motlow State Community College first-gen logo

Motlow State Community College (Motlow State) joined the Class of 2023 (Network Member phase) of the First Scholars Network in step with our other Tennessee Board of Regents colleges to provide a statewide effort in supporting first-generation students. Motlow State is a public, multi-campus open-access college in the heart of Tennessee with the purpose of providing an eleven-county service area with quality education and workforce development support. Our community is primarily rural but also contains Rutherford County which is one of the fastest growing cities in the state. Statewide initiatives like the TN Hope, TN Promise, and TN Reconnect scholarship have provided many first-generation students the pathway to earning a collegiate degree. To improve retention and persistence in this population, these are the first five key focuses Motlow State has taken toward becoming a first-generation minded institution.

1. Environment

Providing students an environment where their presence is welcomed and wanted matters in reducing their fears. A willingness to acknowledge the needs and unknowns of first-generation students allows us to move in reforming and improving the way we communicate and work with them. Can students understand and navigate through resources with clarity and ease? Are faculty and staff aware of the challenges first-generation students overcome, and are they prepared to handle them? Are locations and offices identifiable and easily accessed? Considering these elements provides a campus culture and climate which invites first-generation students to participate and engage rather than walk through their college journey alone.

2. Example

Being the first can leave students feeling isolated and alone. Motlow State recognizes the need to connect students with those who have walked along the same journey. Students fears can be relieved by connecting students with those who have succeeded as first-generation students before them. Peer mentoring provides ways for first-generation students to connect with those who have made it through the first-year. Peer mentors can provide a present and relatable resource for students. This can be reinforced by faculty and staff who were first-generation providing a model of what these students can accomplish. Motlow State is working to build this internal first-generation network with each new student and improve completion rates within this group.

3. Efficiency

To better serve first-generation students, Motlow State recognized the need to create more efficient pathways to identify these students. Collaboration between Institutional Research and the Student Success divisions are guiding future practices and procedures to gather this data. By clearly defining and correctly identifying first generation students, Motlow State hopes to glean more information regarding the performance and needs of these students. By integrating data with practice, we aim to improve student success for these trail-blazers.

4. Exposure

Being first means treading into new waters which means new experiences and opportunities. Encouraging first-generation students to be involved in campus life and culture creates connections to expand the scope of students’ worldview and allows them to grow their network of support. Organizations like Student Government Association, Phi Theta Kappa, Skills USA, MP3, Pride Alliance, and Unidos provide on campus connection points for students to create connections to those who can help them navigate college. Opportunities like Study Abroad afford the opportunities to adventure while learning and connecting to other students. Additionally, participation in these organizations and experiences contribute to the persistence of students.

5. Encouragement

Motlow State recognizes the struggle students go through in being trailblazers for their families. The struggle they push through is not always in the classroom. The pressure of external factors can lead students to abandon their dream to take care of more pressing issues. We see the need to encourage students to endure and persist to reach those dreams. Stoking a culture of encouragement helps to remind first-generation students they are able and capable. Nickie Fanning is Student Success Advisor at the Moore County campus, but is also a first-generation, adult learner, alum of Motlow State. When asked about what helped her the most during her time at Motlow, she said, “The big thing for me was having people around me to encourage and push me to grow in new ways. They were always urging me to complete my degree.” Building a culture which dreams alongside their students and encourages them to achieve those dreams is vital.

Beginning this journey with the First Scholars Network has jumpstarted the excitement about first-generation students at Motlow State. Our goal is to harness this energy to provide those students with the keys needed to unlock their future and provide the next generation of trailblazers with the mentors and examples of what they can achieve and become.

For more information on Motlow State Community College's approach, please visit their website here.