At Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, 40% of students in the residential, liberal-arts program are first-generation and roughly 20% to 25% are Pell students.
In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Elizabethtown President Carl Strikwerda reveals the college's approach to supporting the success of these students.
Strikwerda explains that some students come from a community that supports their college decision and helps them understand what to expect—but first-generation students often don't come from this kind of background.
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So Elizabethtown aims to build the kind of support network that first-generation students lack.
Elizabethtown's at-risk students—who Strikwerda says make up almost 15% of each entering class—arrive on campus early to participate in a special orientation program called Momentum.
By the end of the program, participants "know where the library is, they know where IT is, they know when something goes wrong, how to go get counseling," Strikwerda says. "They know."
When the first-generation and Pell students have a chance to settle into their residence halls and get to know one another before the other 400 to 500 students arrive, they are less likely to feel marginalized.
"Suddenly they're embedded, and they feel much stronger in that community," Strikwerda says.
And it's important that the students feel confident from day one, Strikwerda argues.
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"First impressions are lasting," he says, adding, "So if you walk in assuming that eventually chances are you will graduate, and your parents and your high-school teachers think you will, it's just so much different [than] if you walk in with a little bit of a need to be reassured."
After students complete orientation, Elizabethtown continues to build their support network with advisors who take a hands-on approach to supporting students. Advisors at the college also lead first-year seminars, so students see their advisors two or three times per week in class. Administrators also try to match students to advisors who will be a good fit.
Advisors also help first-year students identify their strengths through diagnostics and then choose a major that aligns with those skills. The strengths diagnostics are the same ones many other institutions use to help juniors and seniors starting their career search, Strikwerda explains.
The transition to college can be especially difficult for first-generation and Pell students who performed well in high school and on their standardized tests, Strikwerda says, especially if they initially receive a few low grades. They don't know that this happens to a lot of students and it can deflate their confidence, he adds.
By building these students strong support networks of their own, Elizabethtown helps students develop grit and resilience.
"The myth is, of course, that [grit is] just an internal virtue," Strikwerda says, adding "grit is something you develop... by having a community that supports you" (Fischer, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/1).
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