First-generation students are starting something new at VCU

Bumper sticker on gray car that reads 'you first'.
At VCU, approximately one-third of first-year students identify as being first-generation college students. (Pat Kane, University Public Affairs)

Jarris Simpson, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University, meets regularly with a group of first-year students to talk about their college experience. The students share concerns and questions with Simpson, who does his best to provide advice and point them in the direction of resources that can help. Sometimes, Simpson will go with a mentee to the appropriate office not only to steer them to the right place but because he’s interested in exploring what the office has to offer, too.

Simpson is a first-generation college student and so are each of his mentees. In the You First program, mentors are matched with students with similar experiences and interests to help them navigate their first year in college. The mentorship arrangement is part of You First at VCU, a network of programs and initiatives tailored to first-generation students. Although Simpson is serving as a mentor, he also is learning from the experience and gaining momentum for his studies. 

“I love working with first-generation students because they come eager to learn,” said Simpson, who is majoring in chemistry and minoring in Spanish and biology. “They’re ready to go, and they’ve got a determination to push until they get to their end goal. It motivates me to be around that.”

Jarris Simpson in blue jacket.
Jarris Simpson meets regularly with a group of first-year students to talk about their college experience. “I love working with first-generation students because they come eager to learn. It motivates me to be around that,” he said. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

At VCU, approximately one-third of first-year students identify as being first-generation college students. In recent years, the university has introduced new resources focused on first-generation students to help them make the transition to college life and to thrive on campus. VCU’s efforts in this area led to its selection to the inaugural cohort of First Forward institutions, a designation by the Center for First-generation Student Success that recognizes institutions of higher education that have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes for first-generation college students.

As a member of the cohort, VCU is collaborating with other First Forward schools this year to share lessons and best practices and to dream up new ways of serving the first-gen population. “It’s a great opportunity for us to share ideas and to bring back new opportunities for our students,” said Daphne Rankin, Ph.D., associate vice provost for strategic enrollment management.

Yessica Flores, a junior at VCU, believes first-generation students at VCU are becoming increasingly galvanized as a group, seeking out each other to provide support and inspiration.

“It’s something more people are showing pride in,” she said.

Rankin and Melissa Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Focused Inquiry, have seen evidence of that, too. “A new camaraderie is forming,” Johnson said. Before VCU’s spring commencement in 2018, the You First at VCU office announced that first-generation students who were graduating could pick up a You First at VCU pin to put on their regalia. Between that commencement ceremony and subsequent graduations in December 2018 and May 2019, You First at VCU has given out more than 4,000 pins to graduating students. In addition, students, faculty, staff and alumni are snapping up You First at VCU bumper stickers and T-shirts. On Nov. 8, National First-Generation College Celebration day, a group photo of VCU’s first-gen community will be taken at the Ram’s horns in the Commons Plaza at 1 p.m.

It’s not just us building a community here. It’s the students and their families who are really helping us build that sense of community, and it’s not just for our students but for our staff and faculty and alumni who were first-gen. It’s very powerful to watch.

In fact, this fall the Division of Strategic Enrollment Management partnered with the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute to present breakout sessions titled “You First at VCU: First-Generation Student Success” at New Faculty Orientation. The sessions provided new faculty members with information on VCU's first-generation students, programs and services offered, and ways the faculty members can support VCU’s first-generation students.

Rankin said You First at VCU takes an integrated approach to supporting first-generation students. Through its varied efforts, the program addresses academic success, social integration and family support. One of VCU’s most impactful efforts for first-gen students is its Summer Scholars program, a five-week summer session that gives students a head start on their college career. Priority goes to first-gen students for the program, which allows students to take classes, earn credits and build friendships in preparation for the academic year.

Flores participated in Summer Scholars and said it has served a crucial role in her college experience.

“It’s really helped me so much, especially with the networks that were developed during that time that have stuck with me,” Flores said. “The program has been a very, very important factor in where I am today. I’d have had a lot more stumbles by now if I hadn’t been a part of it.”

Yessica Flores.
Yessica Flores said first-generation students at VCU are becoming increasingly galvanized as a group. “It’s something more people are showing pride in,” she said. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

VCU also has become a leader in outreach to first-generation families. Rankin said she often hears from incoming first-generation students that they anticipate being away from their family will be one of their biggest challenges. Family members of first-gen students often have different needs and questions than their peers, Rankin said. Consequently, VCU established workshop sessions at preview day and orientation for first-gen families and began to offer webinars and virtual roundtable discussions for them. The initiatives help family members manage their own expectations and experiences while supporting their students in the best ways possible.

“Our first-generation students are gaining a knowledge of college but their families are not, and we don’t want them to feel left out and in the dark,” Rankin said. “These discussions allow them to talk about all kinds of topics, like completing the application for financial aid or what they can expect when their student comes home for the first time.”

Rankin said students play a prominent role in the university’s various first-gen efforts. Flores is co-founder of the You First at VCU student organization, which formed in 2018 as a way for first-gen students to find and support each other.

“We’re trying to reach out to as many students as possible who are entering college as first-gen so they know they have a support network that will be there to help them and guide them with anything they need,” Flores said. “We want those students to know that they’re not alone and they’re never going to be alone.”

Like Simpson, Flores is part of the You First student mentoring program. Last year, the program launched with 14 mentors. This year, there are more than 50. Rankin said the program arose from a determination to ensure first-year, first-generation students are engaged with the university and to strengthen the connections of the older students serving as mentors.

Two students smiling.
Yessica Flores and Jarris Simpson and two of more than 50 VCU students participating in the You First student mentoring program. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

“It’s very rewarding to be there for [the first-year students] as someone they can turn to when they need help or have questions,” Simpson said. “It can be a stressful experience to be a college student, and I want to do what I can to help.”

Johnson leads the focused inquiry program that offers small, seminar-style classes for first- and second-year students as part of the core curriculum, providing an invaluable introduction to college academics. She also was a first-generation college student and appreciates the particular issues her students with backgrounds similar to hers face. 

“I’ve been teaching first-year students for 20 years, and I’ve seen the transitions that they need to make and some of the contacts that they don’t necessarily understand when they get here,” Johnson said.

VCU is part of a national trend to create a more concerted effort to identify and support first-generation students on college campuses, Johnson said.

“Schools are adjusting to better understand and support first-gen students,” Johnson said. “Even the language, ‘first gen,’ is relatively new. There’s a kind of national conversation emerging, and we’re seeing a lot of great attention on this.”

Johnson said the First Forward participation is a boon for VCU. She said the program is helping VCU identify and learn the best ways to provide powerful support for the first-generation student population.

“We really will get a great sense of what’s working at other places and what’s not working,” Johnson said. “It’s rich and fruitful to hear what other folks are doing and how that’s working for them, and then to use that information to further build our own program. The knowledge we’re going to be able to bring back to VCU is going to lead to some amazing ideas for our students.”

Flores said she hopes enthusiasm continues to grow for first-gen students at VCU and what they represent.

“Every one of us is starting something here,” Flores said. “We’re the beginning of a legacy.”

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