Empowering First-Generation Students to Reimagine Their Future: A Holistic Approach to Support and Success

Diana Fedinec, Jhona Gipson, Evelyn Moore, and Brenda Williams, Southwest Tennessee Community College / The Center / February 23, 2024

Southwest Tennessee Community College student

First-generation student, Robrecus “Rico” Parker, came to Southwest Tennessee Community College (Southwest) in Memphis, Tennessee, with an unstoppable desire to obtain a nursing degree. He was inspired by his mom who dropped out of college, and propelled into the world of health care when he performed CPR on her due to a bout with pneumonia.

As with many first-generation students, Rico understands the impact his degree will have on his future, his family and community. “I just wanted a change in my family situation, to create some generational wealth,” said Rico. Soon Rico will be graduating in spring '24, serving as a role model in a profession that aims to inspire more African American males.


“I just wanted a change in my family situation, to create some generational wealth.”  Rico Parker


At Southwest, we believe everyone deserves an opportunity to “reimagine your future.” This guiding principle is instilled in our approach to every encounter with our first-generation students, as we endeavor to empower and equip them with the necessary tools to pursue their academic dreams.

As the second largest community college in Tennessee, serving a student population from Memphis and the neighboring states of Arkansas and Mississippi, we recognize the unique backgrounds and experiences of our students and the diverse cultural paths they travelled to reach us. We see them as individuals, not just students, and we're committed to providing the resources and assistance they need to face their challenges and thrive academically. We understand that fostering a hopeful and successful future for first-generation students entails breaking down barriers and cultivating collaborative connections within our Southwest community and beyond.

We see them as individuals, not just students, and we're committed to providing the resources and assistance they need to face their challenges and thrive academically.


Our initial action, as a member of the First Scholars Network (FSN), established a committee comprising representatives from various college departments. This committee was tasked with examining the tracking of first-generation students to pinpoint any obstacles hindering their success. We engaged with our FSN peers from institutions nationwide in monthly virtual meetings, learning from their experiences and building connections. These connections within the college and with our stakeholders, helped to solidify our commitment to deliver comprehensive support services aimed at facilitating student success for first-generation students.

An awareness campaign was developed to inspire first-generation students and provide them with a sense of belonging and information about the support services available to them.

The College conducted interviews with several current first-generation students and created a video capturing their collegiate experiences that was shared on National First-Generation Day. The aim was to inspire and encourage other first-generation students to stay on track to pursue their goals and to see themselves as belonging to a community of scholars. The video emphasized the availability of support services such as the Welcome Center, Recruitment team, Advisors, Student Life, and Career Services.

In conjunction with National First-Generation Day, the College broadcast a virtual event moderated by Southwest president, Dr. Tracy D. Hall, herself a first-generation student. First-generation students were inspired to hear about Dr. Hall’s journey from her humble beginnings to community college president. This event, co-hosted by the Center for First-generation Student Success (COE), featured a remarkable panel of first-generation alumni including Tinisha Agramonte from The Walt Disney Company, Jessica Cipolla-Tario from Sony Interactive Entertainment, Marge Jackson from Comcast, and Leticia Silva from Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins, who shared their experiences as first-generation students and their career trajectories.



Southwest faculty and staff continually work to improve first-generation student success, retention and completion. We provide a holistic array of wrap-around support services, including the Center for Access, Child Care Center, Student Leadership and Engagement, Mental Health Counseling, Peer Mentoring, Academic Support Center/Tutoring, and Veteran Affairs.

“Come, don’t let anything stop you. There is a lot of help here!” – Ellen Contreras

First-year students, including first-generation students, are paired with Peer Mentors who maintain regular weekly communication to offer encouragement and valuable information. These interventions foster a welcoming environment for students and are intended to help them feel more comfortable asking for assistance.

The Academic Advising team offers personalized, relational advising to guide first-generation students from enrollment to graduation, fostering a supportive environment through care, mentoring, and self-direction. Each student is assigned a dedicated advisor within their academic division, facilitating intrusive advising for comprehensive career discussions and ensuring alignment with their program of study. This tailored approach is a valuable resource for first-generation students, providing consistent support throughout their academic journey.

Our Career Services offers first-generation students a free, 5-minute Career Coach assessment to identify and explore careers that match their interests. During a follow-up appointment, they can review their assessment results, share their dreams, and start to develop a game plan. This can be especially helpful to first-generation students who have not had anyone in their family who graduated college. Services such as resume assistance, job search support, internships, and part-time opportunities are available to empower students with the skills they need to conduct a successful job search. The goal is to provide the resources they need to make informed “life changing” decisions for their future.


“I would tell a person who is or will be a first-generation student, just to keep going.” – Clara Mashburn

Looking ahead, Southwest remains committed to learning from first-generation students to address the barriers they face in the pursuit of their educational and career goals. As expressed by Southwest first-generation student Clara Mashburn, the message to future first-generation students is one of perseverance and resilience: “I would tell a person who is or will be a first-generation student, just to keep going.”

We invite you to watch the video of Southwest’s first-generation students whose quotes are featured in this article.

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