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Making a New Tradition at St. Lawrence: The First-gen Initiative

Tina L. Tao, Ed.D., St. Lawrence University / The Center / November 03, 2021


St. Lawrence University (SLU) is a small, liberal arts college nestled near the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. First-gen students make up approximately 20% of our total student body. Though making up a smaller percentage of our student body in comparison to other schools, our first-gen students aspire to make a strong impression on our university. They serve as community assistants and orientation leaders, lead student clubs and organizations, perform in theater productions and musical ensembles, compete in student-athletics, study in off-campus programs and abroad, and so much more.

The awareness of a need to support our first-gen students came out of the work of our retention committee, which sought to identify the areas of greatest need to improve our overall retention of students. While the committee recognized that there were several different groups of students who were struggling with their sense of belonging and needed additional support, the committee believed that creating a program to support the first-gen cohort would help them feel valued and increase their desire to stay on our campus and have a more successful experience.


Here at St. Lawrence University, our community loves traditions. From our annual Candlelight Services to hearing the school songs at every university function, traditions are what most SLU students and alumni think fondly of when thinking about their alma mater. One new tradition that we hope will be fondly remembered is the First-Gen Initiative (FGI) program. The FGI was established in the fall 2020 semester, amid remote work and hybrid and online courses. Yet, we were undeterred, and with the dedication and support of 40+ faculty and staff colleagues, we initiated a hallmark event: our first-gen mentoring program. This mentoring program aims to match our first-gen scholars with a faculty or staff mentor who was also a first-gen student or is an ally to our initiatives. Starting in spring 2021, we matched 30 students with mentors, and so far this fall, we have grown to nearly double that number–with 63 students participating in the mentoring program. Our goal is to get 25% of our first-gen students (which would be about 100) to participate in the mentoring program.

The Past, Present, and Future of the FGI at SLU

Last year, we celebrated our first-gen students on National First-Generation College Celebration Day on November 8th. Staff handed out T-shirts promoting first-gen pride, hot chocolate, and the ever-popular Pub Cookies (extra-large chocolate chip cookies that should be our university mascot!) Additionally, in collaboration with our C-STEP and McNair colleagues, we hosted a First-Gen Leadership Summit with guest speaker and workshop leader Tamam Waritu, who shared practical advice on overcoming obstacles and achieving personal and professional goals. Members of the class of 2021 were the first graduates to receive first-gen honors cords.

This year, we have continued to promote our FGI program to students at the annual Student Club and Organization Fair. Students learned about the FGI and were able to scan a QR code and sign up for a mentor immediately. Our future plans include a meet-and-greet brunch and a first-gen night at the fall theater production–all falling during the week of the National First-Generation College Celebration.

For more information on ​​St. Lawrence University’s approach, please visit their website here.