The Center at Six: A Strong Foundation, a Growing Community

Sarah E. Whitley, Ph.D., / The Center / June 14, 2023

Center 6th Anniversary

You may be familiar with the “traditional marriage gift;” a concept suggesting that each marriage anniversary aligns with a particular type of gift (the first anniversary is paper, the 20th is china, etc.) It’s a silly tradition but one that came to mind when reflecting upon the Center’s opening in June 2017. 

The traditional sixth anniversary gift is iron. The words that described iron resonated more to me: strength, unbreakable durability, and versatility. 

In 2017, we embarked upon an entrepreneurial journey with steadfast intentions of changing the trajectory for first-generation college students. And many of those words used to describe iron are the same I would use to describe the Center - and also the first-generation students we are each committed to serving. 

While iron may not be the most exciting way to celebrate a milestone, the descriptors do tell an important story of our evolution as we navigated, alongside each of you, a global pandemic and major societal challenges. 

Six years ago, I knew, with the backing of The Suder Foundation and NASPA, we could partner with institutions across the country to affect change. But I never – and I mean never – would have predicted what would happen next.

And now here we are. After six years, the Center has become the premier source of evidence-based practices, professional development, and knowledge creation for the higher education community to advance the success of first-generation students.

And I couldn’t be more proud to recap a few of our biggest successes over the past year.


The Heartbeat of the Center: Our Team

I couldn’t begin a recap of the past year without first recognizing the people at the heart of it all – the Center staff. A few, like senior director Deana Waintraub Stafford and director Diane Schorr, have been with the Center for years. But, as more institutions begin the work of advancing first-generation student success, we had to build capacity to support this work.

We were astounded by the talent across competitive hiring processes and our team of 13 quickly grew with the addition of 14 new colleagues. Our Center team is now 27 strong and distributed across 19 states; there is likely someone nearby from the Center to support your efforts. Please join me in welcoming:

  • Stephanie Bannister, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President
  • Wendy Beesley, M.P.A., Expert Guide
  • Sam Goessling, Ph.D., Chief Growth Officer
  • Latasha Green, M.Ed., Operations Manager and Executive Assistant to the Vice President
  • Sarina Green, Marketing and Design Manager
  • Angelia Johnson, M.Sc., Instructional Designer
  • Marie Mahovetz, Ed.S., Program Coordinator for Network Operations
  • Martina Martin, Ed.D., Director of Expert Guidance
  • Lydia Nicholson, Prospect Manager
  • Kyle Nixon, M.A., Director of Network Expansion and Operations
  • Keara Richardson, M.P.P, Research and Data Associate
  • Rosemary Sandoval, Program Coordinator for Network Success
  • Nancy Stalowski, Ed.D., Research and Data Associate
  • Megan Stone, Growth Team Chief of Staff

I am both excited and grateful for this team, and confident that we are positioned to best support the institutions ready to radically transform the first-generation student experience, advance academic and co-curricular outcomes, and build more inclusive institutional structures.

I am also grateful for the help of so many of you who aid the Center in a variety of ways – facilitators, volunteers, reviewers, Advisory Board members, Advocacy Group, Editorial Board members – the list goes on. Without your support, we couldn’t have accomplished half of what we set out to do. Our success is shared by the work you do each day to support first-generation students in many ways.



The First Scholars Network is the Center’s star and our approach to transforming the higher education landscape that advances outcomes for first-generation students today and in the future. Over the past year, we welcomed 76 new institutions as Network Members and 23 institutions to the First Scholars phase. That brings us to 348 institutions of higher education in the Network representing 49 states and the District of Columbia.

These institutions demonstrate their commitment to first-generation student success every day – attending events like the First Scholars Leadership Academy before the NASPA Annual Conference or the 2023 NASPA Conferences on Student Success in Higher Education, participating in regular networking and professional development events, working with expert guides at the Center, and so much more.

With these institutions providing such a strong foundation, the future of the First Scholars Network – and the Center – is very bright.



I view the role the Center plays in knowledge creation as critical to the field. Early on in our history, we set a goal to develop and promote scholarly research and data-informed practice as the primary clearinghouse for post-secondary education to advance first-generation student persistence and completion.

That’s why I’m so proud to see the growth of the Journal of First-generation Student Success. Not only did the Journal just publish the first issue of Volume 3, but we had the second iteration of the Editorial Board approved by the Board of Directors.

While the Journal is the most visible of our first-gen scholarship, it’s far from the only resource we make available. This year alone, you may have seen many of the following:



The annual National First-Generation College Celebration continues to be a highlight of the Center’s year. This was the sixth year of the celebration, and we continue to find new and innovative ways to engage the world in #CelebrateFirstgen. This year featured a new “I graduated…” video series, two broadcasts of our virtual live event, and a tweet from former First Lady Michelle Obama expressing pride in first-gen students for “taking that leap and pursuing higher education.”

Last year, 50 Grant Opportunity recipients were announced during COE’s 41st Annual Conference in San Diego, California. Jointly funded by the Center and COE, a total of $25,000 was awarded in $500 unrestricted grants. These grants make celebrations possible at institutions with limited or no budget and center the first-generation student experience.



A key priority over the last year, the Center has amplified advocacy efforts by responding to ongoing and emerging policy issues that intersect with first-generation college student identities. We organize advocacy and policy work in three ways: raising awarenessengaging with public officials, and building partnerships. The #AdvocateFirstgen blog is released on the first Tuesday of each month and covers everything from FAFSA to mental health with a first-generation student lens. A review of these resources can be found here. A lot more to come in this area over the next year... Stay tuned!


So What’s Next?

You, and other friends of the Center, know that we have big plans for growth over the next few years. Our team is working hard to raise additional resources that will allow us to serve over 700 institutions through the First Scholars Network in the next five years.

That’s a big number. It’s a lot of work to provide institutions with the tools and resources necessary to close equity gaps for first-generation students through sustained and scalable approaches. But it’s possible because of you. The work you all do on behalf of first-generation students is inspiring. I can’t thank you enough for your support of the Center over the last six years. I look forward to continuing our partnership and our critical work together for years to come.