Initiative is improving retention rate for first-generation students.
Monday, November 27, 2023

When Maddie Anderson-Trotter came to the University of Iowa as a freshman in fall 2021, she had a lot of questions, from how to get involved on campus to how to register for classes.

“When I was in high school, I would go to my teachers with those sorts of questions because my parents just didn’t know,” says Anderson-Trotter, a first-generation college student from Council Bluffs, Iowa. “Here, it was really great to have my community with First Gen Hawks to lean on. The First Gen Hawks program definitely assisted in making the transition to college smooth and provided a strong community for me.”

First Gen Hawks, launched with about 100 students in 2020, provides support and learning opportunities to first-year, first-generation students. This includes courses that will set them up for success in and out of the classroom, one-on-one mentoring and coaching, and meetings with other first-gen students with similar questions and experiences on campus.

This year about 170 first-year students participated in the program, which was recently recognized with the 2023 Innovation in Transition Programs Award from NODA, the Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education. 

“First-gen students get a lot of great support at Iowa,” says Danielle Martinez, director of student retention. “A lot of the best practices we’re already doing for students, but we’re still seeing some gaps. It’s really important to figure out how we can have the best opportunities for students and package it into our programs.”

Since the program’s inception, participants have logged more than 600 hours of peer mentoring connections and more than 100 hours of academic coaching. Those hours have translated into stronger academic performances and higher retention rates for first-gen students.

From fall 2021 to fall 2022, the retention rate for students participating in First Gen Hawks was 90%. That is 10% higher than the retention of first-generation students who did not participate in First Gen Hawks or other support programs, such as GEAR UP or TRIO, and on par with the retention of all first-year students, which was 89%.

“We’ve been very fortunate to consistently close what we would see as a gap for first-generation students who do not receive services,” Martinez says. “Our first-gen students in the program now achieve at the same rate as their peers, and in some aspects, outperform other students. A higher percentage of first-gen students are on the dean’s list. There are fewer of our students on academic probation. We’re moving in a positive direction and creating sustainable changes.”

Tina Arthur, director of orientation services at Iowa, says First Gen Hawks students participate in an academic seminar on one of three tracks of their choosing to help with their transition to the university: employment, leadership, or research. Students also connect with peer mentors to talk about any issues they may be experiencing in their first year.

“A majority of our peer mentors were participants in the First Gen Hawks program themselves, which is important,” Arthur says. “They’re not just a peer at Iowa. They’re a peer at Iowa with very similar experiences to the students themselves.”

After her time as a student in the program her freshman year, Anderson-Trotter became a peer mentor and seminar teaching assistant for the program and has been helping fellow students for a year and a half. She mentored 10 students last academic year and is currently working with another eight students this year.

“It’s really rewarding,” she says of her mentorship experience. “I have people that were my mentees last year who text me and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing now.’ I know I’ve made a positive impact on them. I’ve had many jobs in Iowa City, and this is always the one I share with my family and friends as the one I truly enjoy.”

Anderson-Trotter says her time in the program has also helped her academically. She is pursuing a degree in social work and will graduate in spring 2024.

“With the degree I’m getting, First Gen Hawks has helped me learn how to connect with people and support them,” she says. “It’s also helped me work on building strong relationships with people who have unique, complex backgrounds. Human connection is important to me, and to do that in my job is awesome.”

Zoe Newman, First Gen Hawks program assistant director, says the program’s students also receive coaching from UI staff members to work on goal setting, self-advocacy, navigating career paths, and improving skills sets. She notes that class sizes for sessions are small to allow students to dive deeper into areas of interest. 

“We also focus on leadership, how students can show up as a leader both in the classroom and beyond,” she says. “Even thinking about how those leadership skills can work back home, outside of the university, they are building those skills to succeed.”

First Gen Hawks also provides community building for first-year students, not only through on-campus employment but through meeting other first-generation students in the program.

“We have everything from how to fill out your FAFSA to pumpkin painting,” Martinez says. “We’re building community in different ways to find additional avenues of success and build that sense of belonging and connection to the university.”