How Arizona Western College made first-gen support networks more visible

First-generation students tend to feel as if they don't belong on campus, even though they met your admission requirements. And students who doubt their place in college may drop out, according to Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

At Arizona Western College (AWC), campus leaders understand how insidious self-doubt is—because many of them started as first-gen students, too, writes Ashley Smith for Inside Higher Ed.

AWC boasts the largest proportion (66%) of first-gen students in the state. And about 40% of AWC faculty and staff self-identify as first-gen, including Daniel Corr, the college's president.

Many students don't just wrestle with their first-gen status, some face poverty, too, says Corr. But the college believes the first step to eliminate poverty in their community is to educate—and graduate—their low-income, first-gen students, writes Smith.

Four Tactics to Support the First-Generation Student

About 22% of AWC students have a family income of less than $20,000, according to the Community College Benchmark Project. The same report ranked AWC as a national leader in social mobility. When AWC students earn a credential or degree, they "move up two quintiles on income," says Corr.

With the stakes that high, campus leaders wanted to make sure students could see the vast support network of former first-gen students available to them.  To make first-gen allies more visible, the college launched an "I Am First Gen" campaign last year. Students and faculty wore bright yellow "I Am First Gen" t-shirts and established a First-Generation College Student Day in November.


#AWCFirstGenDay #AWCLaPaz #MatadorPride #AskMyStory

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When first-gen students and faculty wear the shirts, it shows they're proud to be here, says Aryca Arizaga Marron, a psychology professor and first-gen AWC alumna. We want to tell first-gen students "you belong here," says Corr.

Here's how other colleges build first-gen student support networks:

  • Georgetown developed a Thrive Guide to address questions that a student’s parents might not be able to help with if they did not attend college;
  • Like AWC, The University of Rochester developed a campaign for faculty and staff to both visibly show their support of first-gen students and help these students find the resources they need; and
  • The University of Texas at San Antonio created "familias," groups of 20 to 30 first-gen students and a first-gen faculty mentor who meet regularly to discuss their experiences.

(Musso, VOA "Learning English," 10/29/16; Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 4/11/18).

Read more about first-gen student success

7 fast facts about your first generation students

33% of first-gen students drop out within 3 years

How this university answers 2,000 first-gen student questions per day

10 ways to support first-generation students in 2019

How one faculty member raised grades for low-income, first-gen students

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