First-gen Initiatives at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Brian Becker, Shawn Hampton, and Jennifer Mendez, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign / The Center / October 05, 2022
The Office of Minority Student Affairs at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has over 50 years of experience providing exceptional support services that enhance the academic achievement, personal development, and graduation rates of first-generation, low-income, and historically underrepresented students at Illinois. Here, we share three vignettes about ongoing efforts to support first-generation students at Illinois. For more information about these and other programs, visit our website here or follow us on social media @OMSAillinois.
First-Generation Day: Building a New Campus Tradition
The Office of Minority Student Affairs at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is proud to celebrate our first-generation students, staff, and alumni once again through our annual First-Generation Celebration! Serving as one of the oldest, most robust support programs in the nation, the OMSA prides itself on having championed our first-generation scholars and alumni for over 50 years. In accordance with the annual National First-Generation College Celebration honoring the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the OMSA gathers campus and community partners to commemorate the overwhelming success and contributions of our first-generation Illini!
In recent years, the OMSA has tirelessly expanded our efforts to #CelebrateFirstGen. In 2019, we paired our TRIO Student Support Services and TRIO Upward Bound students to participate in a series of enrichment activities culminating in a campus-wide reception at the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center (BNAACC). The reception featured first-generation student leaders sharing their rich narratives as well as a powerful spoken word performance. With steamy hot chocolate and matching treats, we gathered in the BNAACC surrounded by posters featuring prominent first-gen figures and listened to our campus’s next cohort of inspiring first-gen student leaders.
Fast forward a year, and the pandemic forced us to shift our mode of operating to a virtual format. Nevertheless, the OMSA was determined to provide a meaningful experience and to continue the tradition of celebrating our first-gen family. We hosted programming via Zoom and continued to network with our campus partners to further our reach for when we returned to an in-person format. In 2021, we hosted our largest celebration to date. Partnering with our peers at each of the cultural houses, the OMSA held a “Proud to Be First-Gen” Block Party. Students poured from their classes on the Quad just a short way to Nevada Street and participated in activities including Giant Jenga, a photo booth, a marshmallow tower challenge, and more. Following the Block Party, the OMSA held a campus-wide reception at the Levis Faculty Center featuring a panel of students, faculty, and staff. We filled the room with students and campus partners who, with marked excitement, gave a steady stream of thoughtful questions to our panel. In fact, participants enjoyed the opportunity to network so much that many stayed until well beyond the end of the program.
We hope our students can develop lasting bonds and allow for campus partners to engage one another in discussing potential collaborations to support the unique needs of first-gen students.
Now, the OMSA is gearing up to exceed the success of last year’s program by a mile! As we gathered feedback from participants and campus partners, many expressed the desire to learn from their seasoned first-gen peers and form mentorship bonds to help navigate their college experience and beyond. This year, we intend to expand the reception at the Levis Faculty Center to include an open networking opportunity, allowing students and campus partners to engage in meaningful dialogue. In doing so, we hope our students can develop lasting bonds and allow for campus partners to engage one another in discussing potential collaborations to support the unique needs of first-gen students. In addition to the networking opportunity, the OMSA will again feature the popular panel portion, accompanied by a delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres so folks can enjoy a warm meal as they gain valuable information from our incredible first-gen Illini. Our annual First-Generation Celebration is a proud OMSA tradition and one we intend to continue to grow each year!
– Brian Becker, Academic Outreach Advisor
First-gen Directory: Increasing First-gen Staff, Faculty, and Resource Visibility
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has had a longstanding record of enrolling first-generation students. I remember the challenges that I experienced as a first-gen student at Illinois. Establishing a true sense of belonging on campus by building my social network and receiving mentorship from individuals who also identified as first-gen greatly contributed to my persistence and graduation.
Following a few years as a staff member looking for first-gen student success resources on campus, I decided that if the online community had yet to be established, I wanted to be part of the collective efforts to strengthen connections across the community. A first-generation online directory was ultimately established during the spring of 2022 to become a centralized location for accessing information related to first-gen student success. This free, publicly accessible resource provides the community access to information about supportive wellbeing resources, ongoing social events/programs, and a way to connect informally through email for mentorship opportunities. The professional and academic range of experiences are part of what I hope makes the online directory the most encouraging aspect for current undergraduate and graduate students to browse through. I would like for the directory to provide a platform for current students to see that they are truly among a community of care and that they themselves can succeed in similar ways as the first-gen faculty, staff, and alumni community members who are listed.
Building community, increasing belonging, embracing inclusion, and encouraging engagement will assist in creating a successful program by positively impacting every student’s opportunity to succeed.
In terms of further growth and development, I would love to see the first-gen directory become a highly visible resource that audiences readily think of as a trusted source for best practices to support first-gen student success at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. At the national level, I hope the resource page becomes a model to peer institutions who are considering developing their own first-gen student success resources.
– Jennifer Mendez, Student Success Advisor
iSucceed: Accountability Groups with a Focus on Community, Belonging, Inclusion, and Engagement
Establishing a true sense of belonging on campus by building my social network and receiving mentorship from individuals who also identified as first-gen greatly contributed to my persistence and graduation.
The component of the program that is not often highlighted is our two dynamic facilitators, Haro Wade and Shawn Hampton. Both Haro and Shawn have multiple degrees from Illinois and intimately understand the struggles of our OMSA students on this campus. Our passion to holistically support students to achieve their dreams and have a strong positive college experience further fulfills the mission of iSucceed. iSucceed gives us the opportunity to remind our students of the resources they need, how to find those resources, and how to access those resources. We also have the opportunity to check in on their wellbeing and see how they are choosing to engage the campus. We also remind our students of their value and impact to their fellow peers and those who follow behind them, whether that be students in newer cohorts or their families and communities back home. Finally, we give them the chance to meet with us individually, so we give the personalized encouragement and guidance at the same level that is provided in our high impact Advising & Mentoring program.
Our desires for iSucceed, as Haro finalizes his doctoral journey and I continue to further my doctoral education, is for the program to be scaled up. In each subsequent semester, the goal is to increase the number of iSucceed classes available and to increase the number of students in each class. Ultimately, we hope that iSucceed can help meet the needs of every OMSA student and positively impact their success, retention, and graduation rates.
– Shawn Hampton, Student Success Advisor
For more information on University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's approach, please visit their website here.