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Building the Foundations: Our First-Generation Program at UCCS and What We Have Learned Along the Way

Jonathon DeWitt, University of Colorado Colorado Springs / The Center / June 20, 2024

University of Colorado Colorado Springs first-gen photo op

Like any structure you want to make sure your foundation is solid before you continue to build. At the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, that is exactly what we have been working on this year. Before I jump into our story it is important to know that building is a messy and beautiful process. As I share with you our lessons learned from this year, I hope you walk away with encouragement in the ways you are impacting your first-generation community, some helpful tips to think about as you build out that community, and some things to avoid.

Focus on the Pillars

When we started our journey of building out our first-gen community we knew it was going to take a village to build a program with lasting impact. In this consideration we knew that our students connecting with one another is vital, creating opportunities for connection with faculty and staff was also key, and lastly, we know the incredible impact families have in the lives of our students.

From these insights we created the following pillars:

  • First2Go Connections (Student Focused)
  • First2Go Faculty and Staff Network
  • First2Go Families

Having a set vision for our first-generation community has been incredibly helpful as we plan for what the future will look like. That said - it is also a lot of work! The 2023-2024 academic year is our first year with full-time programming, and it has been challenging to navigate. We have emphasized connecting with our students, which has made a big difference. It has been tricky connecting all the pillars in meaningful ways. Our plan for the future is to develop each of these areas intentionally, starting with the foundation of building out our First2Go Connections pillar. My recommendation for those just starting their journey is to pace yourself well. Do not try to do too much at once or the other areas will not get the attention they deserve.

Campus Partners are Key

In any community you must have others who come alongside and work together with you to create magic. The strength of our First2Go program starts with our amazing students and is built stronger by our campus partners. We get to work with some incredible people who care deeply about the students we get to serve. Our MOSAIC and LGBTQ+ Resource Center has a staff member who is an invaluable part of the First2go team. She helps us plan events, think critically about the direction we are going, and helps to raise additional funds for programming. Our Pre-Collegiate team and Career Center staff have also been outstanding partners. Pre-Collegiate has helped us to deepen the way we think about connecting with incoming first-generation students, family support, as well as interpretation services for our Spanish- speaking population. The Career Center has hosted numerous workshops with us including our LinkedIn Learning workshop with professional headshots, and our Stepping Into the Workforce workshop (our most attended event to date). As you develop your program do not forget to include other departments on campus. They bring invaluable strengths, feedback, and partnerships that better our community. 

Pay Attention to Wins

My last thought and encouragement would be one that a colleague shared with me. Pay attention to the wins. We have had great success with some of our events but have also had our fair share of events with lots of prep work and a low turnout. If you are like me, it can get discouraging at times. That said keep your eye out for the wins. In one of our events, we had six students show up. The event was a lot of fun but by the end of the evening I was feeling a little defeated. We serve over 1700 first-generation undergraduate students so seeing only six show up distracted me from our hopes of the program. Right after the event I was talking with Ashley, one of my colleagues in the program, and shared my discouragement. She encouraged me to “pay attention to small wins,” then pointed out that the six students who attended had started to connect. Not only that, but they were also smiling and enjoying their time well after the event had come to an end.

In conclusion, as you build out your first-generation program:

  • Focus on what the core of your program is and pace yourself.
  • Find others that will journey with you.
  • Don’t lose sight of the wins along the way.

I want to close with a quote from Alex. She is a first-generation student and one of our student employees. I asked her what the takeaway from this year has been as a student and a student employee. She shared this year she has grown in her “confidence and being proud of being first-gen” and that as a student the two words that come to mind are “inclusivity” and “belonging”. That is the hope for all our first-generation students to know they belong and to see the strengths they bring that make our community so amazing.

Wishing you and your teams success as you navigate your own building first-generation communities. If you ever want to connect with us, do not hesitate to reach out.

For more information on University of Colorado Colorado Springs's approach, please visit their website here