By Meredith Fidrocki, Writer, College of the Holy Cross
Victoria De Leon says that college was “uncharted waters” for her and her family. At the College of the Holy Cross, the senior from Denver sought out programs to connect her to other first-generation students. “The weight of being a first-generation college student was too heavy for me to carry on my own,” says De Leon, a political science and Spanish double major with a concentration in Latin American, Latinx and Caribbean Studies.
For a sizable group of Holy Cross students—16 percent of the student population—part of the higher education journey is being a first-generation college student, meaning that neither of the student’s parents graduated from a four-year college or university.
“Holy Cross’s goal is to make their college journey—in, through and out—a seamless experience,” says Michelle Rosa Martins, director of the Office of Multicultural Education and herself a first-gen college graduate.
With its social justice-oriented, holistic approach and small size, Holy Cross has a long history of first-generation student success, Rosa Martins says. First-gen students at the College are graduating at a rate equal to or higher than their Holy Cross peers. In recognition of its commitment to first-gen students, Holy Cross was recently designated a First-gen Forward institution by the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA and The Suder Foundation.
In 2018, Holy Cross joined the American Talent Initiative, a partnership among the nation’s top colleges and universities aiming to significantly grow the total number of lower-income and first-gen students enrolled at their institutions.
“It’s been an exceptionally difficult year for students from lower-income backgrounds across the country, leading many to pause or delay their education,” says Cornell B. LeSane II, vice provost for enrollment management at Holy Cross. “Despite the challenges of the last year, we were able to overcome national trends and maintain our commitments to enrolling and retaining lower-income students.”
As part of Holy Cross’ efforts to achieve the American Talent Initiative’s collective goal, LeSane says he’s particularly excited about plans to increase the number of partnerships that the College has with community-based organizations.
Research shows that colleges’ “hidden curriculum”—the landscape of new policies, jargon and cultural practices to navigate—can create barriers to success and leave first-gen students feeling like outsiders. Holy Cross strives to break down these barriers, offering social, academic and financial support while valuing the multi-dimensional identities of each first-gen student, as a whole person.
Support That Starts Early and Continues Beyond Graduation
Through targeted programming for prospective, accepted and first-year students, Holy Cross aims to ensure first-gen students begin their college careers with the resources they need to hit the ground running. Holy Cross’s retention rate for first-year, first-gen students is consistently over 95 percent, exceeding the 82 percent national average for all students at four-year private nonprofit institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“[People] often look at first-gen college students from a deficit model—all of their challenges and hurdles,” says Amie Archambault, assistant director of Holy Cross’ Office of Multicultural Education and LGBTQIA+ Specialist, and a first-gen college graduate. “We often use the term ‘trailblazer,’ as first-gen students are blazing new pathways for their families in higher education, and it highlights the skills, strength and resilience that first-gen students possess.”
When first-gen students enter Holy Cross, Rosa Martins gives them this reminder: “You have so many leadership skills that have come into place to get you where you are. It’s not a matter of whether you will succeed—it’s how and when.”
Through the Odyssey Program, incoming students who are first-gen, Pell Grant-eligible or students of color take part in summer peer mentoring: a one-week summer retreat and yearlong peer mentoring. As part of the annual #FirstGenCollegeGrad visibility campaign at the start of the academic year, first-gen faculty and staff wear pins and post decals on office doors so that students can identify and build relationships with community members who understand their shared lived experience.
Streamlined communication plays a crucial role in student success. “Research shows the best way to support first-gen students is to get all of the information in one space,” Archambault says.
Holy Cross’s new first-gen student website serves as a digital hub, with everything from a detailed first-year guide to research-based information for faculty and staff on how best to support first-gen students. The site also points students to financial resources like the recently launched Student Emergency Aid Committee, a one-step process for students experiencing emergency financial needs, such as food insecurity or unexpected transportation costs.
On top of comprehensive career exploration and planning through the Center for Career Development, the College’s First-Gen Alumni Network is an important added resource for current first-gen students, as well as alumni looking to connect with first-gen alumni for career insights, mentorship and community.
Through HCF1RST, Students Lead and Empower
One of the most powerful support systems at the College comes from the students themselves, via HCF1RST Scholars. “It’s student-led and helps amplify first-gen stories and connect [students] with resources,” says Archambault, who serves as advisor to the organization, which is open to first-gen and/or low-income students.
The HCF1RST platform also includes the HCF1RST Mentor Network, promoting visibility and connecting students with first-gen Holy Cross faculty, staff and allies who are particularly interested in serving as first-gen mentors.
Now a senior serving as co-chair of HCF1RST Scholars, Victoria De Leon joined HCF1RST Scholars as a first-year student and says the organization has been there for every step of her Holy Cross journey: “It provided resources and, most importantly, a community that lifted me up.”
This year, De Leon says that she and her fellow peer leaders have ambitious goals for expanding HCF1RST’s digital presence, as well as hosting many events, including financial literacy and FAFSA workshops, first-gen panels, a first-gen retreat, a mentorship program with local first-gen middle school students and more.
“HCF1RST is the organization that has empowered me to grow into the leader that I am today,” she says. “I hold HCF1RST close to my heart because being a part of a community that celebrates and uplifts our shared experiences has granted me the confidence and reassurance that I needed, as I pave a new legacy for my family.”