UMBC First Generation Network Student Project Assistants

Corris Davis, M.S., M.P.P., University of Maryland, Baltimore County / The Center / December 01, 2021

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Office of Academic Opportunity Programs (AOP) houses UMBC’s First Gen Network (FGN). This workgroup comprises faculty, staff, and alumni of UMBC who identify as first-gen and develop activities through various subgroups including student engagement, faculty/staff engagement, alumni engagement, and parent/family engagement. To address our limited capacity as faculty and staff who already have full plates but still want to provide additional services to students, the AOP director connected with the Federal Work Study (FWS) Program and hired five FWS students to serve as project assistants to support the work of the subgroups. Initially, there was also a marketing/media subgroup, but due to staff capacity and the abilities of the project assistants, the marketing/media subgroup responsibilities were reassigned to the students in this role.

A graduate assistant (GA), who is also a first-generation college student, manages and coordinates the individual student projects and support of the subgroups. Two main initiatives for the project assistants include coordinating the First-Gen Student of the Month Program (SotM) and the Humans of UMBC: First-Gen Edition. Humans of UMBC: First-Gen Edition features UMBC faculty and staff who identify as first-generation college students. The project assistants, with support from the GA, manage Humans of UMBC from identifying and recruiting faculty/staff participants to conducting the interviews and updating the website.

My experience as a project assistant...helped me learn about the college experiences of other first-gen students and how we share some of the same struggles and experiences as a collective.

Additionally, as a part of marketing and media, the project assistants create and maintain the First Gen Network Instagram account. Through the Instagram account, the First Gen Network website, the e-mail list, and the UMBC intranet, the project assistants market events and provide updates on opportunities available to the first-gen students. Yedeal Deresse, who was instrumental in maintaining the social media presence of the Network, said this about his experience: "My experience as a project assistant opened my eyes in so many ways, especially meeting other first-gen students and faculty members at UMBC. It helped me learn about the college experiences of other first-gen students and how we share some of the same struggles and experiences as a collective. I was also able to meet and work with some amazing people that have taught me a thing or two about college and helped guide me along the way.”

While the project assistant position was originally conceptualized in response to limited departmental resources, we see the opportunity to provide students with meaningful work and planning experiences. Students in this role aren’t required to be first-gen themselves, but the position overwhelmingly draws first-gen students. Much of the professional engagement is modeled from our McNair Scholars’ Ambassadors Program, which also leverages student workers’ abilities and provides them with opportunities to own projects from conception to completion. Because we strive to take a holistic approach to engaging students, we seek weekly feedback from the project assistants; not only regarding their ongoing work with FGN but also regarding their entire well-being. We check in weekly to inquire about student well-being around their academics, social adjustments, and overall connection in and outside of the UMBC community.

While reiterating to students that their primary role at UMBC is to be a student, having FWS students involved in planning and supporting FGN activities allows UMBC to stretch limited resources and staff capacities to provide an enriching experience to our first-gen students. As a result of the project assistant position, we have been able to provide more timely updates, maintain a strong social media presence, and improve our overall communication and outreach approach to the 2,700 first-gen students at UMBC.

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