Campuses offer array of help to first-generation students - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Campuses offer array of help to first-generation students

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By JAMES E. CASTO

For The State Journal

West Virginia University President Jim Clements knows firsthand some of the obstacles faced when students are the first in their family to go to college.

"Neither my parents nor my grandparents went to college," Clements said. Even so, the importance of education was a lesson "my parents taught my brother, sisters and me when we were young."

Today, the members of the Clements family proudly count 11 college degrees among them.

Clements said WVU believes the same thing his parents did: Education is the foundation upon which success is built, and it should be available to anyone who is serious about their studies and wishes to pursue them. That belief, he noted, demands that special help be available for first-generation students.

The proportion of first-generation students on America's campuses actually has been declining since the 1970s as higher education has become more accessible, according to a 2007 study from the University of California at Los Angles. But a wave of educational research over the past decade has prompted many schools to start offering extra support in the form of special scholarships, tutoring and informational sessions.

There's no solid figure regarding the number of first-generation students attending college in West Virginia.

"However I can tell you that only about 26 percent of residents living in West Virginia currently hold an associate or bachelor's degree, so it is safe to assume that many of our current college students are the first in their family to attend college," said Jessica A. Kennedy, assistant director of communications at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

First-generation college students face a number of barriers and challenges, Kennedy said. The financial barrier can loom large.

"Most — but certainly not all — are from low-income families, thus their parents can offer little if any financial help."

But first-generation college students face other obstacles as well, she said.

"For many, the sheer volume of paperwork involved in gaining admission can be overwhelming. If they successfully enroll, they likely will arrive on campus with no idea of what to expect. And some arrive with a deep-seated fear that they don't belong in college, that they're going to fail."

The commission's Division of Student Success operates a number of programs aimed at helping future college-goers overcome those obstacles. The division conducts financial aid workshops for high-school students, shepherds prospective students on campus visits, provides training for school guidance counselors and even operates an informational booth at the West Virginia State Fair each year.

Federal dollars help fund those efforts through the GEAR UP program that focuses on middle- and high-school students who likely will be the first individuals in their family to go to college. GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. The program is limited to counties with specific demographics, and in West Virginia, Kennedy said, that means about half the state.

Meanwhile, the state's colleges and universities have put in place an array of programs and services aimed at encouraging and helping first-generation and low-income students. Many of those efforts also are federally funded through the TRIO program.

The history of TRIO has been progressive. It began with Upward Bound, which dates back to the 1960s and the War on Poverty. In 1965, a second program, Talent Search, was created. In 1968, Student Support Services became the third in a series of programs and the shorthand term "TRIO" was coined to describe the three.

All or nearly all of West Virginia's colleges and universities have TRIO grants in place.

WVU, where an estimated 12 percent of the students on the Morgantown campus are first-generation, has a number of initiatives aimed at putting such students on the path to successful academic careers.

The Blueprint for Student Success, an initiative begun by President Clements when he arrived at WVU in 2009, recognizes a need to improve retention and graduation rates among students. The ultimate goal is to help each student explore, design and implement a student success plan.

WVU started hosting orientation sessions just for first-generation students.

"We've had a special orientation for first-generation students the last two years and will have one again this summer," says Brenda Thompson, associate vice president for Enrollment Management.

The Student Support Services program at WVU — funded by a TRIO grant — provides individualized services to students who are either first-generation, income eligible, or have learning or physical disability. Based on students' needs and goals, SSS assists them with academic accomplishments and social and cultural enrichment.

"SSS has housing available to a small group of their students at Gaskins House," Thompson said.

At Marshall University, help for first-generation students is available at the Student Resource Center located on the second floor of the Memorial Student Center. It's designed as a one-stop shop, staffed with resource specialists trained to handle questions regarding a wider range of topics, including financial aid, academic advising and career services. Students can either set up an appointment or just drop by for advising help and access to a computer lab area.

Marshall has a number of TRIO programs in place, including:

 

  • Heart of Appalachia Talent Search, which serves youth in Mason and Wayne counties.
  • Empowering Appalachia Talent Search, which serves youth in Cabell County.
  • Upward Bound Program, which provides tutoring and a summer program for high-school students in Cabell, Wayne and Lincoln counties.
  • Student Support Services, which helps Marshall students improve their reading, learning and study skills.

 

Susan Stough, an SSS counselor at Marshall, was herself a first-generation college student. She said that fact gave her special insight into some of the problems faced by students she helps. She said TRIO grant guidelines limit the number of students who can participate "and we always have people on a waiting list to join."

Shepherd University was awarded a $1.1 million, five-year federal TRIO grant in 2010 and is using the funds to operate a Student Support Services project that provides academic tutoring, academic advising and assistance with financial aid. Also, Shepherd's Admission Office helps coordinate the First In Your Family program designed for first-generation students and their families.

At Fairmont State University, FSU GEAR UP works with students and their families to emphasize the importance of a college degree. In 2005, Fairmont State was awarded the fourth largest of the 98 GEAR UP grants given across the nation — the only new grant to be awarded in West Virginia. The grant serves 14 counties. For each of the six years of the grant, 6,617 students and their parents from 56 middle and high schools in the 14 counties have benefited from GEAR UP programs and services.

Dr. Maria Rose, Fairmont State's interim president, was herself a first-generation college student.

"Like many of our students, I was the first in my family to attend college," she said. "Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was one of those kids who played school. There was never a doubt in my mind or in my parents' minds that I would go to college, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would someday be a university president. That is the power of a higher education degree. Education can create opportunities you never dared to imagine."

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