Creating a Network of Support: George Mason University's Approach to First-gen Student Success

Lex Lewis-Semien, M.Ed.; Khaseem Davis, M.Ed.; & Nakia Waters, M.A., George Mason University / The Center / January 19, 2022

George Mason University (Mason) is committed to the success of first-generation college students (FGCS). Mason’s commitment begins early in FGCS academic experiences, particularly during pre-college and as these students’ transition into Mason. Further, Mason is engaged in numerous partnerships with local school systems. There is one program that is a product of these partnerships: the Early Identification Program (EIP). EIP serves as Mason’s college access program. It began in 1987 and in its 34 years has provided holistic services to over 2,000 students throughout Northern Virginia.

Currently, these partnerships provide programming that focuses on the academic success, career readiness, and the social/personal development of over 750 college-bound FGCS in grades eight through twelve. Families incur no cost for participating in EIP, and students who successfully complete the program are admitted into Mason–with many of our admitted students receiving full- and partial-tuition scholarships to attend. EIP is unique in both its structure and the services it provides to college-bound FGCS.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, EIP worked to ensure services to students and their families remained intact and uninterrupted. To do so, we worked to ensure that our students had workable devices and internet access to engage in distance learning. Initially, this was a challenge. However, we worked tirelessly with our school partners to ensure students were able to access their devices throughout the summer. For students who lacked workable devices and internet access, EIP launched First-Gen Connect, a laptop and personal MiFi loaner program for our students. As a result of our efforts, students remained connected to programming throughout the first wave of the pandemic with participation rates averaging 80%. Our highest participation levels reached 92% and 94% for our Summer Academy and STEM Fusion programs, respectively.

George Mason University’s commitment to the success of first-generation college students is also shown with the establishment of the First-Gen+ Center (FGPC) in May 2021. This is a standalone, professionally staffed department focused on serving the first-generation community at Mason, including students who are first-gen and undocumented, have refugee status, and those who have families with limited income. The Center focuses on easing the transition of first-generation Patriots by strengthening the campus’ “first-gen readiness” through the Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP), peer mentorship, first-gen week celebration, and dedicated student-led programming.

The importance of these cross-campus groups lies in the ability to ensure a uniform definition of first-generation college students, share all available resources, and create broader networks of support for FGCS.

STEP, a multi-year summer program established in 2003, is an initiative of the First-Gen+ Center created to enhance the recruitment, engagement, and retention of first-generation college students accepted at George Mason University. Its mission is to empower students through academic skills, access to resources, community building, self-discovery, and the global citizenship needed to compete in today’s college environment and beyond. STEP provides students with assistance in their transition to college including academic preparation, retention, career exploration, and empowerment. Beyond their initial summer bridge term, STEP scholars are supported by peer mentors, professional staff success coaches, and the catered programming offered through the FGPC and campus partners.

In collaboration with student organizations, Undocu@Mason and F1rst-Gen@Mason, the FGPC supports student run programming such as Immigration Monologues, UndocuTalks, and a computer loan program. For the past two years, Mason has celebrated the First-Generation College Celebration on November 8th and extended the celebration into its First-Gen Week. The First-Gen+ Center and campus partners at Mason created events to celebrate, center, and empower their first-generation Patriots. During the pandemic, the First-Generation (“First-Gen”) Peer Mentoring program, was revitalized in the First-Gen+ Center as we saw a need to support first-year and transfer students. These students are connected to upper-class students to help them navigate Mason’s campus.

Ultimately, the work of supporting first-generation student initiatives goes beyond the work of the FGPC and EIP. Mason faculty and staff prioritize the success of this student population through the First-Gen Task Force, the First-Gen Roundtable, and the First-Gen Faculty Affinity Group. The importance of these cross-campus groups lies in the ability to ensure a uniform definition of first-generation college students, share all available resources, and create broader networks of support for FGCS. It is through the dedicated collaboration of faculty, staff, and students that Mason continues to build a campus that is “first-gen ready,” “undocu-friendly,” and focused on holistic student success.

For more information on George Mason University’s approach, please visit their website here.