Building support for first-generation students
Charmaine Troy is passionate about helping educators and potential mentors on campus make connections and build community with first-generation students. Such connections can enhance well-being and provide support.
“Students who are the first in their families to attend college bring unique perspectives and experiences to the classroom and campus,” said Troy, program director for First-Generation Student Support at Virginia Tech. “They also bring unique needs. It is vital to these students’ success that educators and mentors get to know them and offer appropriate support.”
A one-year $5,000 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund will support this work.
Troy’s office is using the grant to explore creating and implementing a faculty development program that would provide faculty and staff members with resources and tools to make strong connections, incorporate effective educational practices, and provide tailored support.
“This looks different for first-generation students because they have not been exposed to procedures and norms that exist in higher education,” Troy said. “With this funding, we will conduct a benchmarking assessment at comparable universities to identify the specific types of development programs needed to promote mentor effectiveness, curricular alignment, and student persistence.”
The program would be the first of its kind among colleges and universities on the East Coast.
At Virginia Tech, a student is identified as first-generation if neither parent nor guardian has earned a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university. By 2022, the university plans for underrepresented, first-generation, or lower-income students to comprise 40% of its student body.
“The grant is consistent with that commitment and fits with our goal of ensuring that first-generation students will learn and grow in a welcoming and inclusive environment,” Troy said.
First-Generation Student Support partners with departments across campus to provide programming and events throughout the academic year to raise awareness about first-generation needs and experiences, build community, and create environments that welcome diverse ideas. Partners include Cook Counseling Center, Housing and Residence Life, Undergraduate Admissions, College Access Collaborative, the Student Success Center, and VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning.
Although the office has only been open a little more than a year, Troy’s work is making a significant impact on campus for first-generation students—and earning accolades along the way. A generous gift from Paula Robichaud, a first-generation alumna and advocate, made it possible for the university to start a formal program and hire a director in August 2019. Since then, the program has continued to expand.
In addition to partnerships across Student Affairs and academic departments, the program now includes the Hokies First Peer Mentoring Program, the Virginia Tech First-Generation Unscripted podcast, a First-Generation College Institute for rising high school sophomores, a support group, and more. GenerationOne, a living-learning community for first-generation students, is on the horizon.
Last spring, the university was designated a First-gen Forward institution and named to the 2020-21 cohort of colleges and universities in higher education demonstrating a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes of first-generation students.
Robichaud is proud of the progress Troy and first-generation advocates have made at Virginia Tech.
“Engaging faculty members to develop appreciation for the unique perspectives these students bring to the university community will foster student success and encourage perseverance while the students master skills needed to thrive,” Robichaud said. “I am particularly excited to see how ideas such as GenerationOne may develop, and I invite other alumni to join in building the first-generation program.”
Troy began building an allies program when she joined the university but hit pause after learning about the grant. She now plans to launch the program next fall after completing the study and is excited about what the future holds.
“It is important that professors and mentors know more about the unique needs and strengths of first-generation students,” she said. “It is critical to their success.”
First-year student Amanda Leckner said she leans on First-Generation Student Support. “They have made me feel like I belong at the university,” said Leckner, who is part of the Hokies First Peer Mentoring Program. “Not only have I met an amazing mentor, I have been given resources to help me succeed.”
Written by Tammy Tripp.