By Shannon Murphy Fennie, Assistant Dean of Students, The University of Scranton
Frequently, I ask students why they chose The University of Scranton. Unfailingly, they mention the strong sense of community, proximity to family and friends, wide array of majors offered, or amazing food on campus. Many will also share how their Scranton education is transformational. However, for one group of students, their Scranton education is not just personally transformative, but life-changing for their entire family.
First-generation college students (sometimes referred to as “first-gen” students) are the first in their family to attend a four-year college or university in the U.S. First-gen students make up 22 percent of the undergraduate student body at Scranton. To meet the diverse needs of our first-gen students and foster their success at Scranton, we launched the THR1VE program in 2019. In the spirit of cura personalis, THR1VE programming celebrates and supports first-generation students throughout their time at the University.
THR1VE focuses on three pillars: understanding and celebrating the first-generation identity; connecting students to resources; and celebrating students’ successes. Programming builds upon the diverse experiences and perspectives first-generation students bring to the college community. First-gen students are typically smart, resilient, and determined, experienced in overcoming hurdles and handling challenges. THR1VE focuses on augmenting students’ strengths while filling in gaps where they may need assistance to successfully navigate their college experience.
Celebrating the First-Generation Identity
Research suggests that common barriers to success in college for first-generation students include the lack of social capital on campus; navigating the often-complex higher education systems; balancing high academic expectations and family obligations; and battling imposter syndrome. The first pillar of THR1VE focuses on building a community for first-gen students and helping them to see that they are not alone on campus. To support this effort, office door identifiers are distributed so that students can see which faculty and staff identify as first-gen or first-gen advocates and are committed to supporting them. These markers proudly adorn offices throughout campus so that our first-generation students know they are never alone.
Another tool designed to help students is our “How to Speak Scranton” jargon decoder. Data from our first-gen students showed that the acronyms used on campus were often confusing, and first-generation students were not sure where to go for assistance in understanding campus language. We created the jargon decoder and offered it through our Orientation app so that students could have the same access to the language of our campus to feel included right from the start. Parents and guardians also have access to the decoder through the Orientation app and website to allow students and their supporters to speak the same language when talking about their experience at the University.
Connecting to Resources
Through our first-generation needs assessment conducted in late 2018, we learned that a struggle to connect with resources was a significant concern. Students spoke to being overwhelmed with information at New Student Orientation, but then not remembering where to go for assistance once classes were underway. Now, the THR1VE monthly newsletter scaffolds student resources based on the time of the academic year and the class year of the student. For example, the October newsletters focus on tutoring services, imposter syndrome and wellness resources for first-year and sophomore students, and on career development, internships and financial wellness for juniors and seniors. We find that providing students with appropriate resources just prior to their needing the information reduces stress and allows students to navigate the systems independently. Topics are selected by the THR1VE Advisory Board, which is made up of a cross-representation of first-generation students representing all class years and all our colleges.
While the newsletter is helpful, we recognize the many benefits of peer-to-peer mentoring. Such mentoring is a powerful learning opportunity for mentors and mentees. Launched this year, the GU1DE peer mentoring program pairs first-year first-gen students with upper division first-generation volunteer mentors. Mentors and mentees meet every two weeks to discuss topics based on the needs of the first-year student. Plans are underway for an upper division mentoring program with that will connect junior and senior students with first-generation alumni with the goal of easing the post-graduation transition.
“I really appreciated having a mentor my first year on campus,” said Vanessa Moylan ’24. “She helped me feel welcome on campus and helped me adjust to a new atmosphere because she went through the same exact experience. It is nice to have someone always looking out for you and to have someone in times of need to fall back on.”
Celebrating Students’ Successes
It is powerful for students to be able to celebrate their successes in community. As such, Scranton joined with colleges across the country to celebrate National First-Generation College Student Day by hosting events on campus and marking the day with a special message to the community from University President Rev. Joseph Marina, S.J. This day focused on bringing students together to mingle with other members of the first-generation community, participate in our resource Jeopardy for prizes, and talk with first-gen staff members in a variety of student service offices.
First-Generation College Students Can Go Anywhere
“First-generation students have said that they are thankful for the resources the University has given them. They find the programming to be helpful to them,” said Elizabeth Garcia, J.D., special assistant to the President and executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity.
As someone who is a first-generation college graduate and a first-generation American, Atty. Garcia knows from personal experience just how valuable these resources are to students.
As a member of the President’s Cabinet, she, along with six other first-generation senior leaders, can provide support for this initiative. They know first-hand the extra hurdles a first-generation student must leap to graduate from college and are also aware of the boundless possibilities a college education offers.
“THR1VE brings a sense of belonging and community for those who identify as first-gen at Scranton. It helps break down the feeling of imposter syndrome and fear of being a first-gen student at a university where many students are not,” said Scranton graduate student Ashley Walker ‘21, G’22. “It helps students realize that they are not alone and gives them role models as they navigate the many unique challenges a first-gen student may experience,”
The key message Atty. Garcia would give to first-generation students is simply this: “Everything is possible.”