Progress at the University of Mississippi to Support First-gen Students

Michael Smith, University of Mississippi / The Center / March 24, 2021

At the University of Mississippi, we have a program, StudentsFIRST, whose goal is to provide programs and services for first-generation students to create an enjoyable collegiate experience at the University. In an effort to support incoming first-year first-generation students, we invited them to join a first-generation only section of our Freshman Year Experience (EDHE 105) for at least the past four Fall semesters. This course is "designed to help our freshman…students make a positive transition from high school to college, develop a better understanding of the learning process, enhance their academic skills, acquire essential life skills to ensure their success, and begin their exploration of the career and major that are best for them." The section I teach for first-generation students approaches many of the topics, journals, and reflections through a first-generation student lens (no assumptions of prior knowledge and setting classroom rules/expectations). It also provides a space to build community between the first-generation students, where they can feel safe discussing issues and concerns that can be unique to first-generation students.

The Division of Student Affairs, under then-Vice Chancellor Dr. Brandi Hephner LeBanc, brought together an unofficial working group of professionals and students across different offices and areas in Spring 2019. Our group included offices whose work included or worked directly with first-generation college students. We included staff members who were first-generation students themselves. Through these efforts, we were able to organize a “First-Gen Meet and Greet” for Fall move-in week 2019. The event brought together new incoming students (both transfer and freshman), faculty, and staff who identified as first-generation or supporters of first-generation student success.

The course also provides a space to build community between the first-generation students, where they can feel safe discussing issues and concerns that can be unique to first-generation students.

After COVID-19 flipped many of the traditional methods of programming upside down, many offices across campus had to find new creative ways to engage our first-generation students. We were able to provide a section of our Freshman Year Experience class (EDHE 105) in a hybrid format during the Fall 2020 semester. This format, also used in the other EDHE 105 sections, brought half of the class together either Mondays or Wednesdays (warmly called Team Monday or Team Wednesday) with a Zoom meeting every Friday to discuss the online work. We held a First-Generation Student Celebration week, November 2-6, co-sponsored with StudentsFIRST, the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College (SMBHC), the SMBHC First-Gen Student Network, and the University’s colleges and schools. Most of the events were virtual, including a recent graduate keynote speaker, Jarvis Benson ‘19, but we did have a socially distanced, in-person grab and go breakfast that Monday morning in the Grove.

With this momentum and energy to support first-generation college students on our campus, the Provost, Dr. Noel Wilkin, has convened and charged a First-Generation College Student Task Force to craft an institutional definition of first-generation college students, to explore ways to identify first-generation students from application to graduation to help with recruitment, retention, and success of those students, and to look for opportunities to collaborate and develop strategies to support our first-generation students.

As we get ready to return from COVID-19 operating procedure this Fall semester, I hope to bring back many of the successful in-person programs (like the Meet and Greet). In a recent Inside Higher Ed article about what students want on their post-COVID-19 campus, missing their friends and social life was the highest ranked item on this survey question. We realize how important it is for first-generation students to have the opportunity to connect in-person with their peers, faculty, and staff. Returning to in-person instruction and events will tremendously impact our first-generation students’ success, satisfaction, and persistence at the University of Mississippi.

For more information on University of Mississippi’s approach, please visit their website here.