The recent event “First Gen Initiative,” part of University President Teresa Sullivan’s “Total Advising” program, highlighted the experience of first-generation students at the University through a series of speeches. Sullivan organized the event in partnership with United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity, or UFUSED, a CIO that provides a network for low-socioeconomic status students. In an email statement regarding the event, Sullivan said, “Making these connections between student and faculty is a major part of the University’s plan for the future.” Sullivan’s emphasis on meeting the needs of first-generation students is commendable, and especially appropriate given past criticism of the administration for failing to prioritize the concerns of low-income students.
Last fall, Sullivan encouraged faculty members to identify themselves as first-generation students. Over 225 students have done so in support of the 1,525 first-generation undergraduates. For students who do not have parents who graduated college and can serve as educational resources, the opportunity to build relationships with older figures such as professors who can mentor them is valuable. A benefit of organizing events that facilitate interaction between first-generation students and professors is that they allow first-generation students to see themselves in the same places as those who have found success in similar circumstances. Some first-generation students may not even know about these types of cases. In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, fourth-year College student Ulisses Santamaria, who attended the event, said, “I actually thought there weren’t any first-generation faculty.”
In organizing the event with UFUSED, Sullivan also demonstrated a vision for advising that will benefit students, one that holds advising as much more than professors helping students select courses or outline their academic plans. An all-encompassing approach to meeting students’ needs through cultivating meaningful student-faculty connections — “total” advising, as Sullivan calls it — may be more effective than our current advising structure, which has received criticism for not guiding students to the appropriate resources. A 2011 Stanford study, for example, found that college students who participated in mentoring and coaching services were 10-15 percent more likely to return to college for another year. Given that first-generation students have significantly lower graduation rates than other college students, mentoring is particularly necessary for ensuring our first-generation students succeed at the University.
Advising at an institution as large as ours invariably misses the mark on meaningful personal interaction. Such a reality is understandable; the University’s sheer size, for one, means that advising resources will always — to a degree — be limited. Regardless, providing substantive interaction to students who need it the most should be a priority. Sullivan’s model of encouraging faculty members who are first-generation students to interact with undergraduates of similar backgrounds is a crucial step toward building an environment that supports first-generation students on Grounds.