If You Build It, Will They Come? Reimagining First-gen at Michigan Tech

Susan Liebau, M.S. & Heather Simpson, M.S., Michigan Technological University / The Center / January 27, 2021

The staff in Michigan Technological University’s Waino Wahtera Center for Student Success have realized a few things about first-gen programming. The first is things don’t always go as planned. First-gen college students have long been included in the conversation around retention and success at the Institution. We have sometimes, however, felt unsure of how our first-gen population would respond to outreach based intentionally around that identity.

Between 2018 and 2020, a variety of initiatives and outreach efforts were piloted to engage our newest first-gen students. In 2018, a mentoring program was introduced that utilized staff mentors to reach out to cohorts of first-gen students. These efforts were mostly unutilized by the students targeted, and we reconsidered how to get students connected.

Our Center for Diversity and Inclusion hosted a memorable panel of first-gen faculty and staff during this year. It made us consider how the accomplishments of our first-gen community are collectively celebrated. The event itself was powerful for the panelists, sometimes sharing experiences publicly for the first time; but it was also meaningful for the audience listening. It was a reminder of the value of knowing you aren’t alone in your struggles, that others came before you, and that there are people there to help.

Sometimes progress isn’t so much about instant perfection; it's often about the process of learning, growing, and being willing to try again.

In Fall 2019, a revised approach was used that included pre-arrival communication, a session for parents and students during Move-in weekend and a one-day pilot for onboarding program designed specifically for first-year, first-gen students. The session was well attended, but the onboarding pilot was cancelled due to unexpected logistical challenges. A number of interviews were conducted with students who identified as first-gen and/or first-year commuter and/or transfer students. That exercise provided an abundance of feedback from students that helped us reconsider programming, including what and how to offer it.

Fall 2020 brought challenges we could have never expected. The truth is when in doubt, we went virtual. This meant a recorded session for students and parents and a celebration of Michigan Tech’s first-gen community planned for November. We decided the time didn’t feel right to hold our inaugural First-Gen Week and we have subsequently postponed our celebration until mid-March.

These experiences reinforced the importance of supporting a culture with collective pride in the accomplishments of our first-gen students. We have a lot of students who work for the Center’s programs who haven't been connected to programming or recognition around their first-gen identity who want to share their story and show pride in their own journey with a sticker on a water bottle. As students become more comfortable with their community at Michigan Tech, they are more likely to feel confident in sharing stories as first-gen students.

Despite sometimes feeling that we aren’t getting things off the ground, we know a lot of positive work has been done to improve upon the experience for our students who are the first in their families to pursue a college degree. Sometimes progress isn’t so much about instant perfection; it's often about the process of learning, growing, and being willing to try again.

For more information on Michigan Technological University’s approach, please visit their website here.