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The first generation

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Jasmine Welks, a first-generation student, works at the Admissions office at Southern Oregon University on Thursday.
Senior Whillamina Wise is pictured on the Southern Oregon University campus where she is a McNair Scholar and student of International Studies and Spanish. Photo by Denise Baratta
SOU to join other universities dedicated to helping those who are the first in their family to attend college

Southern Oregon University students Whillamina Wise and Jasmine Welks are enrolled in different programs and have never met. But they have more in common than the fact that they’re both enthusiastic members of the Raider campus community.

Both were raised by single mothers and are double-majoring at SOU. But the fact that they even walk the Ashland campus is something extraordinary — Wise and Welks are the first in their families to attend college.

It’s something both women touched on in separate interviews with the Mail Tribune.

“I knew from a young age that I really needed to dedicate more time, more work into this process than the average (student),” said Wise, a senior majoring in Spanish and international studies who grew up in Grants Pass. “I do feel like I don’t have a lot in common with them — like a credit card my parents pay for or getting to live in the dorms that they had taken out loans for.”

Welks, a sophomore majoring in theater and psychology, grew up in Northern California.

“There are some days when I wake up and the college process, even as someone who’s been in it for a year now, is … arduous. It’s overwhelming, the stakes feel so high,” she said. “But then, there's other times where I’m doing it … and I think to myself, I’m going to be OK. It’s not as hard as I thought it was going to be. I deserve to be here. I belong here.”

Their comments come as SOU is set next school year to join hundreds of other higher education institutions working in new ways to make sure its employees know how to work with first-generation students.

It’s all part of an initiative called “First-Gen Forward,” stemming from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and the Suder Foundation.

Of the many things they touched on in interviews, Welks and Wise laid out the stakes for first-generation students.

“The kind of conversation that you finally have with a college adviser — ‘What classes do I need to take and when?’ — It’s a huge headache for someone who has never done it before and had no map to follow from previous generations,” Welks said. “There definitely are hidden secrets, tips and advice on when and how you need to do things.”

Wise spoke of a “hidden curriculum” she has encountered as an SOU student.

“Navigating college has its own norms and things you need to know — and if you don’t know them, you don’t know them,” she said. “It’s something you have to learn on the fly.”

First-Gen Forward explained

Neil Woolf, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, said SOU had to apply for this distinction, which kick-started a monthslong process. The university learned at the end of January it had been accepted.

Woolf likened First-Gen Forward to doctors receiving continuing education after medical school.

“This ‘cohort’ is a cohort of staff who will receive continuing education and help develop the continuing education for other staff,” he said.

According to Woolf, anywhere from 20% to 40% of its student population identified as “first-generation,” defined by SOU as the first person in the family to attend college. The university has long fostered programs, such as McNairs Scholars, to help those students. Still, becoming a First-Gen Forward school is something university officials sought.

“We do a good job, and we’ve had to be able to prove we’ve been doing a good job to be part of this group,” Woolf said, “but we always want to do better. By having our staff be able to participate in this, it will help SOU provide even better services to our first-generation students. By providing better services to first-generation students, it helps us provide better services to all students.”

An SOU news release announcing the First-Gen Forward distinction said the university will be entitled to “professional development opportunities, community-building experiences and access to the research and resources of sponsoring organizations.” Woolf said those are all the details he has right now.

“We start figuring that out when the group starts meeting in the fall,” he said.

SOU will make known “in select publications” that it is a First-Gen Forward school, Woolf added.

Bill Barker, strategy and communications manager with the Center for First-generation Student Success, talked about what made SOU attractive enough to be part of the cohort.

“When it comes to Southern Oregon University, they are one of the schools that really offered a demonstrated commitment to first-generation student success — that’s going to include everybody from the staff to the leadership on campus,” Barker said. “The vice president for enrollment management said they’re working hard to level the playing field for first-generation and other nontraditional students, and I think that was obvious in their application.”

Universities that are part of the cohort can, among other things, give staff the opportunity to meet with peer institutions to “share evidence-based practices” and successes in helping first-generation students. SOU will also have access to the same data as the Center for First Generation Student Success to help it make decisions.

“When people think of supporting first-generation students, you immediately think about scholarships and whether you want to put together a living-learning program on campus or offer mentoring,” Barker said. “These sort of direct student interventions are extremely important for institutions to do; but what we, as a center, encourage our institutions to do is kind of a higher-level systems change.”

That includes institutions furthering ways to support staff — work Barker believes should always be constant.

“The good news is, it’s a continual process … to learn and adapt to improve yourself to better serve, in this case, first-generation students,” he said. “Being able to say you’ve demonstrated a commitment doesn’t mean you are 100% there. First-Gen Forward is sort of opening the door with the resources that the Center for First Generation Student Success is able to provide.”

Students views

Welks said being on campus is “worlds easier” for a first-generation student compared to completing courses online. She cites friends she can hang out with, professors she can consult, and her colleagues in the admissions office, where she works part time.

“(They’re) willing to be that golden support team that I think first-generation college students need. You need your tribe, you need your people,” Welks said.

Beyond people at SOU, she has taken advantage of programs SOU offers to help first-generation students. These include Success at Southern/TRIO Student Support Services, which offers free tutoring, workshops on financial-aid literacy and career mentorship.

Welks is also the recipient of a financial aid program for Northern Californians called “The North State Promise,” allowing students from that region to pay in-state tuition.

“Every penny definitely counts,” Welks said.

When she was told about SOU’s coming involvement in First-Gen Forward, Welks thought it was a good thing.

“(This program) takes it from being a loose concept of, ‘I’m so glad that I found a couple professors who are so kind and attentive to my situation,’ to SOU taking the initiative, saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to make this a place where you can succeed,’” Welks said.

She gives school officials an A- in helping her, saying “there’s always room for improvement.” She doesn’t believe staff have had enough training in how to have conversations with first-generation students.

“As a professor who's probably been working in academia for a very long time, it can be hard to relate to someone in their early 20s who is very new to this,” Welks said.

SOU professors have been “as attentive as they can be,” but the administration could do a better job of promoting resources for students like her. Welks suggested events organized by SOU that would bring first-generation students together.

Wise, who also participates in Success at Southern/TRIO Student Support Services, gave the university a B+ when it came to helping her as a first-generation student.

“I think having patience with students’ questions and being responsive to students’ questions — that’s the big thing,” Wise said.

She also talked about the importance of professors who teach freshmen classes making efforts to connect with their students and help them understand course materials.

“For a first-generation student, they might not even 100% know what a syllabus is,” Wise said.

She felt SOU’s inclusion in First-Gen Forward is “definitely a great idea.”

“First-generation students can add so much value to not only the university environment, but also can provide so much value after they’ve graduated in the world at large,” Wise said. “Supporting that is worth every effort because the value we provide is a lot.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.