By Stephanie Colunga Montoya and Jason Taylor, Regis University
At Regis University, we define first-generation students as those whose parents or guardians do not have a Bachelor’s degree. In 2019, first-gen students comprised about 25% of our incoming traditional undergraduate class. In 2020, that number rose to about 31%. This academic year, in 2021, they represent 38% of our incoming students. We have every expectation that this percentage will grow again next year, and we rejoice at that prospect.
Our first-gen students are a grace to us here at Regis. They help us to see things new and to start anew.
The three first-gen initiatives we’re highlighting here reflect our commitment to access and equity for students whose experiences and gifts represent a growing proportion of our student body. However, just as important, we also regard these initiatives as ways of catalyzing institutional transformation. If our students are a grace to us, then these initiatives are ways of building and exercising our collective capacity to be more receptive and responsive to diverse experiences and gifts.
First-Generation Student Success
The First-Generation Student Success (FGSS) program, based in Regis’ Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence (ODEIE), is rooted in our Jesuit value of cura personalis (care for the person). Our holistic approach to personal development and student success is of the utmost priority. We center our programming around intersectionality, with an understanding that our students’ identity as first-gen is but one of the identities they may find salient during their college journey.
FGSS supports students by fostering a sense of belonging and community. Through this program, we’re able to celebrate and make more visible the Regis first-gen community. It also provides members with a collective voice for advocating for and influencing University policies and practices, thus encouraging more inclusivity of the first-gen identity and experience. In this group, students find connections and mentoring with their peers through one-on-one connections, support groups, workshops, and celebrations.
In many ways, a second initiative, the First Scholars program – a collaboration between ODEIE, the Office of the First Year Experience, and the Academic Internship Program – enacts the same kind of holistic approach within the classroom space. A four-year program now in its third year, First Scholars focuses on empowering first-gen students to be campus leaders during their time at Regis. The program is designed to support first-gen students on their path through college with scholarships, and a curriculum that progressively makes more transparent the culture of higher education. The program helps strengthen students’ capacity to engage with and impact that culture. In addition, seminars integrate frequent peer-mentoring and faculty-mentoring opportunities, using Ignatian discernment and its principles as a model for our practice.
First-year students, in particular, receive significant support from their older First Scholars peers in their transition to higher education, which they can share with newer students they meet in subsequent years. The seminars use a year-long cohort model to build a culture of encounter and a strong sense of belonging. The most consistent feedback that we hear from students about being in the First Scholars classroom is, “I am not alone.”
Finally, we would like to lift up the 1LEADS (Leaders Emerging and Defining Success) student club at Regis because it is a powerful example of student agency and self-determination. This club was initiated by students who felt the need to unify the first-gen student voice to advocate, support and celebrate the community. The purpose of 1LEADS is to develop and establish additional support for first-gen students. 1LEADS believes first-gen students often stand apart from those who are not first-gen, as they are navigating college from the perspective of families who do not have a tradition of college education.
As this often presents unique challenges, 1LEADS aims to create events and support groups to assist and celebrate the first-gen experience. Programs have included weekly meetings, a family dinner with parents and siblings, as well as a graduation reception for first-gen graduates and their supporters. As one of the many student affinity clubs on campus, a priority of the group is to collaborate with other affinity groups to support the holistic and intersectional development of the community.
In his famous 1973 justice-education speech to Jesuit alumni in Valencia, Spain, former Jesuit Superior General Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., began by acknowledging the significant historic limitations and failures of Jesuit education to ground his hope for the future in a dynamism that he claimed was at the center of the Ignatian spirit. We too are hopeful that initiatives like those described here will make more legible for us the path our students are tracing, and will enable us to accompany them toward that future.
Stephanie Colunga Montoya is the associate director of Diversity and Student Engagement, and director of the First-Generation Student Success program in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence at Regis. Jason Taylor is the director of the First Year Experience and a mentor in the First Scholars program at Regis.