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Casting the Net(work) Wide: Why first-gen support must come from a campus-wide network and not a singular program

Randi Hamm, The University of Alabama / The Center / April 26, 2023

Five first-gen students at The University of Alabama

With a student body of nearly 40,000 at the University of Alabama and a quarter of students identifying as first-generation, it’s impossible for true impact to come from one person or office. Students often cite a specific faculty member, staff, or mentor as the reason they successfully navigated the college experience to graduation, but to move the needle on first-gen retention and graduation rates, support must come from everywhere on campus. UA’s 2023 approach to positively affect the first-gen student experience has come from partnerships with high level administration, the colleges, student-led organizations and everywhere in between.

In December 2022, Randi Hamm, Manager for First-Gen Programs, Quoc Hoang, Director of Experiential Learning for Culverhouse College of Business, and Dr. Tim Salazar, Director of Data and Analytics for OTIDE, took a bench-marking trip to Sam Houston State University & The University of Texas – Austin. The time spent with the first-gen departments at these Institutions was invaluable, and while both operate differently, there was one very apparent and common theme. Collaboration is the only way to reach the first-gen student community on a large enough level to measure impact. We returned to our institution excited to connect with others in the first-gen space. Two primary areas of focus were growing our Legacy Scholar mentorship and partnership with our colleges on first-gen initiatives.

Legacy Scholars Mentors

Legacy Scholars is the name of the first-gen community at UA. We are comprised of first-gen students and faculty/staff who are committed to the success of our first-gen student population. These faculty/staff may also have been first-gen, but that is not a requirement to join our community at the faculty/staff level. One of the very first things we tackled was identifying our current faculty/staff mentors, followed by recruiting new mentors. Having a network of mentors across campus in both academic and non-academic departments is critical to increase first-gen support at all levels. Through direct outreach and word of mouth recruiting, we increased our mentors from just over 40 to over 100 faculty/staff for Fall 2023. We’ve created a Teams channel and all mentors have gone through training together as we prepare to soon welcome in our new class of freshmen, of which ~2K have identified as first-gen.

Jeff Baldwin, Legacy Scholar mentor, stated “Although it isn’t a requirement to have been a first-gen student to become a mentor, having been a first-gen student at the University of Alabama myself before this program was established, I felt a particular calling for this role. The decision could not have been more rewarding. I remember when I was first-gen transfer student, finding an outlet or a resource to lean on for information or support was a real struggle. As a mentor, my responsibility isn’t to know all of the answers, but it is to be a resource for students who may need a little extra guidance or that one outlet during difficult times. Meeting them where they are comfortable and building that relationship is paramount.”

First-Gen Programs & Arts and Sciences Faculty Engagement Initiative

Student and parents in front of eagle statue at The University of Alabama
First-Gen Programs has teamed up with Dr. Ariane Prohaska, Associate Professor of Sociology/College of Arts and Sciences Administrative Fellow, to create an initiative to increase first-gen retention in the College of Arts and Sciences. Together, we designed a data-backed presentation that we are taking to each academic department within the college (22 total) to educate faculty on how to create a more meaningful and impactful classroom experience for first-gen students. Our hope is to see retention percentages increase and for other colleges on campus to take note and launch similar initiatives in their colleges.

"I’m excited to team up with First-Gen Programs and work with the excellent departments within Arts and Sciences to help them adapt best practices for student success in their respective disciplines. We hope that these changes will not only increase first-gen student retention, but also positively impact all students.” - Dr. Ariane Prohaska

These are just two of the initiatives that are in the works to support the growth of UA’s First-Gen Programs. Partnerships are being created with Deans and advising teams at the college level, as well as with departments like Enrollment Management and Student Life. Faculty and staff at all levels across campus play a critical role in encouraging first-gen students and giving tangible guidance when they need it most. Our goal is that first-gen support is known and felt in every corner of our campus. We’ve taken the first steps and are excited about what’s to come!

For more information on The University of Alabama's approach, please visit their website here.