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Making Meaningful Connections: The Power of Finding Your People on the Path to First-generation Student Success

Richele Henry, Radford University / The Center / May 29, 2024

Radford University student union lawn

When Sasha Klucefski, a first-generation college student, transferred to Radford University, she did not know a soul. It was her first time living on campus and she could not find many resources, clubs, or events specific to helping students like her get better acclimated to college life. “I was scared I wasn’t going to find my people,” she admits.

Early in her first semester, she attended an event hosted by the First-Gen Center and easily made connections, finding genuine camaraderie with other first-generation students. She quickly became involved in the First-Gen Student Union, a student organization for first-generation students, and eventually elevated to a leadership position as its President. She also became a First-Gen Center Specialist, using her skills as a Marketing major to develop a social media presence for the center.

The First-Gen Center at Radford University is unique in that not only is there an inviting space, a hub for students to relax, study, grab a snack, share a meal, or attend events, but also there is also an engaged team of student staff at the heart of it all. Stepping in to the role of Center Specialist provides students with employment that accommodates their class schedule and puts them in a prime position to learn leadership skills as they support other first-generation students.

Radford University NM Blog grad and parents
“Working in the First-Gen Center helped me to socialize more, in a safe, inclusive environment and meet people I otherwise never would have met,” says Ingrid Diaz, who recently graduated with her degree in Social Work. Ingrid is one of three Center Specialists moving on to continue their graduate studies at Radford in the coming fall.

Rising Senior, Antony Guerrero, comes from a family of 11 siblings. Being the first in his family to attend college is a major source of pride, but the journey has not been an easy one. Antony reflects, “Going from ‘my family has my back’ to being on my own…feeling alone is the rough part. I had no guidance and felt lost.” Within his first semester, Antony began attending events hosted by the First-Gen Center and started finding friends he enjoyed being around. He joined the Center Specialist team in Spring of 2024. “I am happy to be a guide for other first-generation students who may also feel lost, like I did. It is rewarding.”

All First-Gen Center programs are student-driven. Student staff contribute their ideas and collaborate on planning, marketing, and hosting events, both those specific to first-generation students, as well as campus-wide events hosted by the center.

First-generation students make up approximately one third of the student population at Radford University. The First-Gen Center is committed to leaning in and listening for what would make the biggest difference for students to feel more connected.

In preparation for Spring 2024 commencement, more than 300 graduating first-generation seniors registered to receive a special First-Gen stole to proudly don on graduation day. Students who wish to receive a stole for graduation must complete an exit survey which provides the center with valuable feedback on how to better serve future students. Some of the feedback has been to create more social gatherings specific to first-generation students, so they can, as Sasha did, have more opportunities to find their people.

Currently, the goal is to reach out to each first-generation student on campus so they can become aware that the First-Gen Center is here to provide them with support and resources. Marketing efforts to increase visibility and engagement include posting printed event flyers across campus and providing updates on the student-run social media presence on Instagram. An email campaign was conducted this past semester to notify students of upcoming events, such as Karaoke Night, First-Gen Picnic, Resume Workshop in partnership with the Highlander Success Center, Stuff-a Plush Study Buddy event and the First-Gen Graduation Reception.

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One of our Center Specialists, rising Senior Lane Snow, says, “We need to be more proactive about getting student’s attention – starting with incoming students.” He had a brilliant idea to partner with the course instructors of University 100, a first-year student transition class. This strategy would put the First-Gen Center in front of new students early on in their journey, so there is a higher likelihood of bringing them into the First-Gen fold from the start.

Lane attends Radford alongside his twin sister, Hayley, also a Center Specialist who recently graduated. They are both first-generation students who navigate the social aspect of their college experience very differently. For Hayley, a few of the right people in her quiet corner is all she needs to be content. For Lane, being involved in an academic Fraternity and the First-Gen Center has him out front and gregariously engaging with new people every day.

There is a path to making meaningful connections for every type of first-generation student, no matter their style of communication or level of desired social involvement. The common refrain shared by student staff is that the hardest part was feeling alone. Finding and securing even one trusted person in their life quelled that sense of isolation.

The First-Gen Center at Radford University is eager to keep finding ways to better serve and ensure the success of our first-generation students by continuing to provide a safe space and creating experiences that support relationships to develop and deepen through their undergraduate experience, and beyond.  

For more information on Radford University's approach, please visit their website here.