A new program from the Office of the Provost will focus on engagement, mentoring, and connection to support success of first-gen students

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

This summer, the University of Iowa Office of the Provost will add to its student support programming by launching the Hawkeye First-Generation Initiative. The program will use research-supported practices to promote academic engagement and help first-generation (first-gen) students build relationships with mentors during their first year. The program is designed to strengthen first-gen students’ sense of belonging, which research shows affects academic success.

According to UI data, the retention rate for all first-year, full-time students who started in fall 2018 and returned in fall 2019 was about 86%, while the rate was 76% for first-gen students.

The four-year graduation rate for all first-year, full-time students who started in fall 2015 and graduated by fall 2019 was 55%, while it was 47% for first-gen undergrads. 

In 2018, 84% of first-gen students agreed with the statement “I feel I belong” at the UI, which was three points below their peers.

At Iowa, a first-gen student is one who does not have a parent or legal guardian who completed a four-year degree. About 23% of all UI undergraduates in fall 2019 identified as first-gen.

“So many at this university, including myself, know from personal experience that first-gen students have incredible potential but face a unique set of challenges,” says Montserrat Fuentes, executive vice president and provost. “Research indicates that first-gen students disproportionately experience barriers to accessing support and have a diminished sense of belonging. I am committed to helping them meet these challenges. The first and most important thing we can do is to help students make connections with the countless people across campus who believe in them and are eager to help them succeed.”

In the first year of the initiative, a group of first-year, first-gen students will participate in one of three high-impact practices: mentored campus employment, undergraduate research, or service learning. Iowa defines a high-impact practice as an activity or program in which students have meaningful contact with faculty and staff, with support to integrate learning across contexts. Students will select one of these programs during summer 2020, and will be connected with faculty, staff, and student leaders associated with the program during orientation.

In addition, the students will enroll in a College Success Initiative course for fall 2020 and spring 2021. The course, taught by faculty experts, will provide a space for students to learn about, plan for, and reflect on the high-impact experience that they chose to pursue. Peer mentors will be embedded in the course to provide both in-class and out-of-class support.

“Peer mentoring has been recognized as an important tool to help first-year, first-generation students acclimate to the college environment,” says Mirra Anson, director of Academic Support and Retention. “By helping our first-gen students establish relationships with faculty, staff, and peer leaders in ways that engage them with unique learning opportunities at Iowa, we hope to see more students stay at the university and accomplish the great things we know they’re capable of.”

Regular monitoring of student progress, along with support from academic advisors and faculty and staff from the First-Generation Task Force, are additional components of the initiative.

The Hawkeye First-Generation Initiative will help meet one of the goals of the UI Strategic Plan 2016–2021. The strategic plan calls for having 60% of all undergraduates participate in three or more high-impact practices before they graduate. Read the full strategic plan, along with progress reports, on the Office of the Provost’s website.

The goal is to recruit about 200 students to participate in the first year, says Fuentes.  At the end of spring 2021, the program will be evaluated by an advisory group comprised of faculty and staff, as well as the Office of Assessment.

“We are starting relatively small,” says Fuentes, “but I have high hopes that our success will lead us to expand the program to serve more students in the near future.”

According to data gathered from fall 2012 to fall 2016, first-gen students arrive at the UI with levels of pre-college achievement similar to their peers. Once here, however, they report lower levels of feeling they belong, and are retained and graduate at lower rates than their peers—mirroring national trends.

Student success is a primary goal of the UI Strategic Plan 2016–2021, and one of four focus areas for the Path Forward Steering Committee and work groups charged with implementing the strategic plan.

“Working with partners across campus, the Student Success Path Forward work group is dedicated to supporting the success of all Iowa students, including those who face distinct challenges because they lack the benefit of family experience of college,” says Sarah Hansen, co-chair of the Student Success Path Forward work group. “The Hawkeye First-Generation Initiative builds on the success of many support services already in place.”

The Hawkeye First-Generation Initiative will be funded by the Office of the Provost and University College and co-coordinated by Academic Support and Retention and Orientation Services.

The UI has been committed to first-gen student success for decades, as evidenced in part by long-standing TRiO programs. Upward Bound, which helps first-gen and low-income high school students prepare for postsecondary education, has been on campus since the 1960s, and Student Support Services began at the UI in the 1970s.

Other efforts supporting first-gen student success include the work of the UI First-Generation Task Force, participation in the National First-Generation College Celebration, and the 1stGen@Iowa initiative. This year, Iowa was chosen to participate in the 2019–20 inaugural First Forward cohort by the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the Suder Foundation.

In addition, the UI recently was awarded a GEAR UP Iowa College Partner grant for $214,500 to support the 400 GEAR UP Iowa participants who will attend in fall 2020. The university anticipates that almost 40% of GEAR UP Iowa participants will identify as first-gen.