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Two-Tiered Mentoring of First-gen Students at Virginia Commonwealth University

Daphne L. Rankin Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University / The Center / April 17, 2020

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)  is an urban, public research university with a student body of 30,000 that is predominantly from Virginia. Of our currently enrolled students, 45% represent minoritized identities and approximately 32% are first-generation students who are Pell-grant eligible. First-year retention rates are 83%, and six-year graduation rates are 67.6%, with strategic plan goals set at 90% and 70%, respectively. One piece of the strategy for achieving those goals is programming for specific populations. You First at VCU offers support and programming for first-gen students. Recently, we launched a two-tiered mentoring program for these students to create community and foster connection.

Dedicated first-gen programming at VCU started with our inaugural Summer Scholars program in 2015. In the third year of this program, Student Engagement and Summer Studies Administrator Elizabeth Bambacus added an informal peer-to-peer mentoring component to the program at the request of students. Previous Summer Scholars met with and mentored current Summer Scholars during the five-week summer program. This peer-to-peer mentoring program was formalized and expanded in 2018.  Dr. Bambacus led training in Spring 2018 for the new mentors, and they worked with incoming Summer Scholars both during the summer program and Fall semester. A one-credit service-learning class for the peer mentors was offered in Fall 2018, and 15 students were enrolled. In Spring 2019, new mentors were recruited from all self-identified first-gen students at VCU, rather than just previous Summer Scholars, and 60 students applied: 50 of which completed a six-week training. Each of these peer mentors went on to mentor three to five, first-year, first-gen students in Fall 2019 while taking the peer mentoring course.

I appreciate being able to support and understand someone who is going through similar experiences as I went through as a first-gen student.

The You First peer mentoring program is designed not only to benefit the first-year students who are assigned mentors but also the students serving as peer mentors. Their participation in the program gives them a community of other first-gen students with whom they can bond and share their experiences. This process both normalizes and validates those experiences of our students. Mentors gain valuable leadership experience and develop helping and conflict resolution skills.

When we spoke to VCU student Desiree Johnson to about her time as a You First peer mentor, she offered the following:

Q: What do you enjoy about being a mentor?
  • “I appreciate being able to support and understand someone who is going through similar experiences as I went through as a first-gen student.”
Q: What do you value about being a first-gen student?
  • “I value the community of first-gen students. They often provide me with encouragement and positivity throughout my college journey.”

This spring, a second-tier of mentoring was added to the program for upper-class first-gen students who had served as mentors for first-year students. Forty first-gen faculty and staff at VCU volunteered to serve as mentors for first-gen students as they prepare to transition to life after college.

For more information on the peer mentoring program and other resources for first-gen students at VCU, please visit You First at VCU.