Program eases transition for first-generation students, those from underrepresented backgrounds
Friday, August 21, 2015

While the transition from high school to college can be challenging for all first-year students, first-generation students may encounter obstacles unique to their experience as pioneers.

Iowa Edge does what it can to bridge the gap. 

“I'm starting college now with a core group of people I trust,” says Alicia Smith, a first-year student from Chicago who is majoring in nursing.

Iowa Edge is offered to students who come from underrepresented backgrounds and first-generation college students. The idea behind the program is to ease student concerns and ensure that participants successfully transition into college life at the UI.

This year, the program began with an early move-in Aug. 16 and culminated with a banquet the evening of Aug. 19. Participants took part in team-building activities, toured campus, and interacted with faculty.

“I loved the team-building activities. I can be pretty shy so it helped me become comfortable really quickly,” Smith says.  

Of the 99 accepted applicants this year, 45 are African American, 32 are Latino, six are Asian/Pacific Islander, nine are multi-racial/other, four are Caucasian, two are Native American, and one is Middle Eastern. Sixty-seven are the first in their families to go to college. 

Beth Ripperger, a behavioral health consultant in UI Wellness and member of the Iowa Edge Planning Committee, understands firsthand how intimidating the experience can be for students who are the first in their families to attend college.

“As a first-generation student myself, I feel a connection with these students,” says Ripperger. “Iowa Edge allows students to form relationships with other students, become aware of the resources and support systems available to them, and helps them acclimate to campus.”

And the students have fun.

“They organized a flash mob on Sunday,” Ripperger says.  

Meghan Yacinthe, a speech pathology major from Kennesew, Ga., appreciated the special attention she and other Iowa Edge students received. 

“If a commitment to diversity ends at an acceptance letter, then we're not doing enough. That's why a program like this is so valuable.”
—Emily Wentzell, assistant professor of anthropology

“We found out where a lot of the offices are and where to get help making résumés. And having so much time with professors has been great,” she says.

On Wednesday, Iowa Edge students talked openly with faculty during a panel discussion, followed by lunch with professors from various departments and small groups to garner advice on how to handle the challenges of college life.  

Yacinthe says meeting faculty in a laid-back environment eased her fear of being intimidated by professors in the classroom.  

“The faculty panel really humanized the professors for me,” she says. 

Many faculty members are aware of how important their support can be for students whose parents didn’t attend college.  

“College can be a mysterious experience for first-generation students,” says Emily Wentzell, assistant professor of anthropology at the UI. “They all ask really good questions and the level of intellectual engagement is really high.” 

Zubair Shafiq, assistant professor of computer science at the UI, led an instructive seminar where students received their first collegiate lecture experience. During his talk, Shafiq stressed the importance of picking a major with long-term employment prospects.

“I encouraged them to consider STEM fields since there are so many good-paying job opportunities there right now,” he says. 

Nursing, business, and various engineering fields ranked among the most popular declared majors by Iowa Edge participants.

Several faculty members selected to assist with the program are minorities as well. 

“We invited some minority faculty members for the program because many of them were once in a similar situation and can empathize with where the students are coming from,” says Gabriela Rivera, multicultural specialist at the UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment and chairperson of the Planning Committee for Iowa Edge. 

The Iowa Edge program has been operating since 2006 through the Kevin and Donna Gruneich Charitable Foundation with additional support from the Center for Diversity and Enrichment in the UI Chief Diversity Office. Kevin Gruneich is a UI alumnus who graduated from the Henry B. Tippie College of Business in 1980. 

“If a commitment to diversity ends at an acceptance letter, then we're not doing enough,” says Wentzell. “That's why a program like this is so valuable.”