Welcome Aboard Flight First-gen 2021!

Gourjoine M. Wade, Ed.D., Grambling State University / The Center / January 27, 2021

When people have asked me to describe our work with first-generation college students in the midst of a global pandemic, I have described it like this: we are building a gigantic airplane and flying on that same plane at the same time, but we also have passengers onboard who have never flown before! These novice flyers are my first-gen students, and the airplane is our institution working to build the appropriate support mechanisms and service guardrails that will protect an already vulnerable student population during the most difficult time in our lives.

For historical context, my institution, Grambling State University, is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) founded in 1901 with a simple premise: give the children of local farmers (who were first-gen students by definition) an opportunity to receive an education that would position them to have better lives than their parents and family before them. That mission remains crystal clear over one hundred and nineteen years later as we continue to serve a predominately first-gen population and navigate these turbulent skies called a global pandemic. Lucky for me, the captain of our flight (my president) has enlisted a top-notch flight crew to get us through these rough skies. From our provost to our vice president for institutional advancement, everyone has shown a sincere commitment towards dedicating adequate services and resources towards supporting our first-generation students.

My colleagues have been essential in going above and beyond to support all of our students and our first-gen students, in particular. We all make sure that their basic needs have been met. We have taken great care in giving pre-flight instructions (orientation and transition services unique to their needs) and providing flexible, virtual, and creative in-flight entertainment (socially distanced programming outside of the classroom) to make sure our passengers are not overly bored during their flight. We also made sure to celebrate and recognize these new, first-time passengers during the flight (first-gen celebration day in November).

All of these experiences have been adapted with appropriate precautions and special attention to our new flyers. The flight also includes plenty of frequent flyers (returning students) who still need a little extra help getting those seat belts in place because many of them were also first-time flyers when arriving. So the pandemic has expanded our mission while also allowing us to have a clear flight path, especially for our new passengers; protect them, support them, provide great customer service, and make sure we land this plane safely at graduation in the next few years (and hoping clear skies guide our journey; goodbye soon, pandemic).

For more information on Grambling State University’s approach, please visit their website here.