FREE Professional Development Webinar
Learn how to use the placement process to build more equitable, student-centered colleges using findings from a national research study funded by the Ascendium Education Group.
Female student in jean jacket climbing stairs to academic building with blurry students in background

Modeling Community: Strategic Planning for First-Generation Student Success

Romina Generali, The College Of New Jersey / The Center / June 18, 2024


The College Of New Jersey first-gen event crew

At The College of New Jersey, we recognize the pivotal role that community plays in the academic success and personal well-being of first-generation students. The 2023-2024 Academic Year consisted of us developing strategic initiatives to foster these communities while simultaneously launching the programming, events, and workshops that will lay the foundation for years to come. This allowed us to witness and evaluate the preliminary impact of such efforts in real time. Early on, we identified the critical need for strategic planning to support our first-generation students effectively. This involved bringing together various departments across campus to collaborate and devise comprehensive initiatives aimed at fostering first-generation success. We are thrilled to have discovered the effectiveness of modeling community, a by-product of our strategic planning which involved collaborating with a multitude of areas across our college campus.

Strategic Planning and Collaborative Efforts

First-generation initiatives are housed under the Division of Inclusive Excellence and the Office of Mentoring, Retention, and Success Programs (MRSP). Throughout this Academic Year, we met with representatives from the following key departments:

- Admissions

- Bonner Institute

- Career Center

The College of New Jersey department event tables
- Center for Student Success

- Co-Curricular and Leadership Development

- Counseling and Prevention Services

- Dean of Students

- Division of Student Affairs

- Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF)

- Financial Aid

- Parent and Family Programs

- School of Education

- Tutoring Center

The Office of Mentoring, Retention, and Success Programs facilitated solution-orientated dialogues with several of the areas above to execute programming throughout the year. We officially convened with every area listed in the Spring semester when we formed the "First-Gen Working Group". In this formal space we examined retention data, academic trends, and the demographics of our TCNJ first-generation student population. This quantitative data underscored the qualitative data we had been collecting through our direct work with this population and will serve as the blue-print for our future work. These collaborative spaces allowed us to strategically centralize the active conversations and efforts that several areas across our campus were already engaged in and plan for a more unified future.

2023-2024 Academic Year Events and Initiatives

The College Of New Jersey first-gen event
This year the Division of Inclusive Excellence and the Office of Mentoring, Retention, and Success Programs organized the following events and initiatives tailored to meet the specific needs of our first-generation students:

- First-Gen Kick-Off: A social event was held in September 2023 to introduce first-generation students to their peers as well as first-generation staff, faculty, and campus resources.

- Virtual Workshops for Parents and Families: (In collaboration with the Division of Student Affairs, Financial Aid, and Co-Curricular and Leadership Development) Six virtual workshops were held this year covering the following topics: Financial Aid Overview (held twice), Understanding Your Student’s Transition to College, Navigating Mental Health Conversations with Your Student, Learning Outside of the Classroom, and Campus Resources A-Z.

- Mental Health Luncheons: (In collaboration with Counseling and Prevention Services and TCNJ’s Am I Okay Program) In both Fall and Spring semesters, first-generation students enjoyed lunch while participating in guided activities and reflective questions that prompted students to share their experiences with mental health within their college journeys.

- First-Generation College Celebration: In conjunction with our Fall Tri-Alpha Induction, first-generation students were invited to come together on November 8th to share a meal, receive a t-shirt, and engage in celebratory activities.

- Tri-Alpha First-Generation Honor Society Inductions: Two ceremonies were held this year in which we inducted 61 students in the Fall and 28 students in the Spring as well as 12 staff and faculty members to our new Eta Mu Chapter.

- First-Generation Tablings: Fall and spring themed tabling efforts were held to raise awareness about the first-generation experience and available support services on campus.

- Student Panel at Accepted Students Day: Within an information session for accepted first-generation students, we held a student panel discussion in which our student representatives shared their extensive list of successes and triumphs as first-generation students at TCNJ.

Student Engagement and Success 

The College Of New Jersey first-gen graduates
One of the highlights of our efforts was the inclusion of first-generation students in the planning and execution of our events. Even throughout this formative year we wanted to ensure their authentic experiences and voices were being represented. Regarding the student panel held during Accepted Students Day, rising senior and psychology major Naia Moore said, “Sharing my testimony with incoming first-generation students and speaking on the accomplishments I’ve achieved while being first-generation pushes me to continue my engagement around campus and become a role model for students.”

Another underlying theme was that at each event and initiative, students expressed a desire to do more. All of our “firsts” this year were met with excitement from students and an eagerness to contribute to developing next year’s initiatives. Specifically, we had students enthusiastically inquire about the formation of the Tri-Alpha Executive Board, opportunities to mentor fellow first-generation students, and engage our alumni. While working directly with the newly inducted Tri-Alpha students, our Graduate Assistant for First Generation Initiatives Kylie Suarez stated the following: “To witness the passion and commitment from first-generation students to connect with each other was an opportunity I wouldn’t trade for the world.” We certainly echo Kylie’s remarks and are grateful for her work this year! 

Modeling Community Through Collaboration

We attribute much of our success to the model of community and collaboration we prioritized throughout our strategic planning process. By bringing together multiple offices and departments under the leadership of the Division of Inclusive Excellence and the Office Mentoring, Retention, and Success Programs (MRSP), students witnessed firsthand the dedication and collective effort invested in their success. Specifically, they had opportunities to socialize and network with first-generation staff and faculty in addition to their peers. This demonstration of solidarity and support not only empowered our first-generation students but also reinforced the importance of community building on our campus. 

Conclusion

In embracing the intersection of community building and strategic planning, we have taken significant strides toward empowering our first-generation students to succeed academically, personally, and professionally. Moving forward, we remain committed to fostering a culture of collaboration, inclusivity, and support to ensure that all of our first-generation students thrive at The College of New Jersey! 


For more information on The College of New Jersey's approach, please visit their website here.