Taking the Long View on National First-Gen Celebration

Angela Lash M.Ed., Ohio University / The Center / December 16, 2019

We all know that planning events and getting folks to show up can be HARD! At Ohio University, we’ve been hosting monthly events for the campus first-gen community for four years. You’d think after so much practice, we’d have everything figured out… but we don’t! Sometimes people show up and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we strike gold and sometimes we flop. Our efforts, even as a First Forward Institution, are a work in progress and it’s ok if yours are too.

We began participating in the National First-Generation College Celebration in 2018 with visions of grandeur. We planned not just one event, but an entire series of events to engage the first-gen community in a variety of ways including:

  • a workshop on first-gen identity and imposter syndrome
  • an opportunity to collaboratively paint our campus graffiti wall
  • taking a first-gen community photo
  • tabling outside of our campus student center to pass out celebratory cupcakes and
  • collect notes of encouragement for first-gen students

We sent invitations and waited excitedly for people to join our first-gen party. Guess what? They didn’t exactly show up by the hundreds. Some events were better attended than others, and it wasn’t always the ones we thought would be most popular. Our campus graffiti wall is an important staple within our campus set of traditions. We invited people to pop by within the span of a few hours to contribute to the painting and expected this event to be a big hit. In reality, very few people showed up. In retrospect, we realized that maybe it’s not so fun to paint outside in Ohio during the month of November! Our tabling event, on the other hand, which we expected to have a lower turnout, was our biggest hit! Many organizations table on campus and much of the time it seems like people are unwilling to stop and check out what they’re advertising as they hurriedly rush to class. Surprisingly, we had a lot of people come look for us to write a note and grab a cupcake.

When we started planning for the 2019 celebration, we reflected on the events of 2018 and made a revised plan. We opted, again, to host a series of events over the course of the week at a variety of times in an effort to engage as many folks as possible. This go-round, we offered:

  • Pie-a-First-Gen fundraiser for our student organization
  • A first-gen panel event
  • Tabling with celebratory cupcakes and notes of encouragement
  • A first-gen shout-out during our football game that was featured on ESPN2, which is a really big deal on our campus

We improved our communication about our events by posting them all on the University calendar and sending a university press release in addition to personalized invitations. We continued events, like tabling, that were successful the previous year and added new opportunities we thought would be exciting. We collaborated with our student org. Yet again, some events were better attended than others. For our football event, we set up a table inside the stadium near the student entrance. We gave away first-gen rally towels, temporary tattoos, and t-shirts. LOTS of students came to see us and we encouraged them to wave their rally towels during the first-gen shout out. Excitedly, during the shout out, we looked up into the crowd for the sea of green first-gen rally towels we expected to see flying. Truthfully, what we saw was not a sea at all. We realized that 200 towels in stadium full of a few thousand people will never look like a sea. But…it was still really cool, and we’ll plan that event again, maybe with a special seating section for the first-gen community.

As we move forward and begin to think about our 2020 celebration, what are our lessons learned and what can you learn from Ohio University?

  • Be patient. Campus culture shifts don’t happen overnight. Things grow over time so don’t be disappointed if people don’t come out in droves on the first try.
  • If something doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up. Try again and tweak the things that didn’t work while continuing the things that did.
  • Appreciate the folks who DO show up. It’s these people who will help your first-gen community and celebratory events grow.
  • Tap into existing structures – what events and traditions already exist on your campus? Who can you partner with? Are there existing, popular events that can include a first-gen focus or at which you can host a first-gen meet up? You don’t have to do all the work on your own. Most of us have small staffs and limited resources. Tap into what already exists.
  • Collaborate with your students. Ask them what they want. If you have a first-gen student organization, include them in both the event planning and execution stages.
  • Try to create a culture of anticipation for events with bigger lead ups. What can you do to get people excited? How can you create buy-in?

We’re looking forward to celebrating with you all on November 8, 2020. It’s exciting to be a part of the beginning stages of a national movement. Let’s continue to move first-gen forward!

To learn more about Ohio University's first-gen initiatives, visit their website.