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Members of We Are First, a student group for first-generation college students, decorate a banner for the Homecoming Parade in the First Scholars House on Tuesday, Oct. 6.

Photographer: Kaitlin Owens

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Maddy Gilmore, a member of We Are First, decorates a banner for the Homecoming parade in the First Scholars House.

Photographer: Kaitlin Owens

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We Are First students decorate a banner for the Homecoming parade in the First Scholars House.

Photographer: Kaitlin Owens

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OHIO First Scholars Program helps first-generation students adapt to college

New house quickly becoming gathering place


Over the past several years, Ohio University's Allen Student Advising Center has gone above and beyond to make sure the University’s sizable population of first-generation students successfully adapt to college and graduate.

This fall, these students have the use of a first-generation students only residential house for the first time, the option to join a student organization, We Are First, specifically for them and many other programs and services that make their transition to college life easier.

Ohio University defines a first-generation student as one whose parents or guardians have never completed an associate degree or higher at a university or college. The federal government's definition is more selective and it only applies this designation to students whose parents have not completed a bachelor's degree.

Angela Lash, assistant director of the Allen Student Advising Center, said that Ohio University began intervening with its first-generation students in fall 2012 using the Map-Works early alert program. It is used by many universities to identify students who are struggling academically or socially via a survey they take the second week of school. The first-generation students were also included in the midterm grade collection process for the first time that semester and alerted if they received a grade below a C.

"Each year, about 25 percent of our incoming class consists of first-generation students," Lash said. "Many of them struggle academically and socially because they don't have anyone at home who can prepare them for the unique challenges of college. The Allen Center has always been innovative in its efforts to develop interventions for students, so we knew we had to develop a plan to support them."

Before the intervention efforts began, University statistics revealed that first-generation student retention rates were about nine percentage points lower than continuing-generation students (73 percent to 82 percent) in 2010-11 and eight points lower (73 percent to 81 percent) during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years. The gap closed to just six points in 2013-14 (76 percent to 82 percent) after the University began to provide special support for these students.

In spring 2013, the Allen Center began sending helpful college tips in e-mails to the approximately 1,000 first-year, first-generation students on campus to help them develop an understanding of opportunities and expectations. The University added the students' parents to the e-mail list in fall 2014.  

In fall 2013, the Registrar's Office added an identifier to the Faculty Advising Center to help advisors identify and support their first-generation students. From 2012 to 2013, Allen Center staffers had reached out to struggling first-generation students by e-mail and phone with limited success before switching to text messages. Lash said the use of text messages as a communication tool resulted in higher rates of interaction between the office and the first-generation students.

The Allen Center redefined Lash’s role in the office in spring 2014 to allow her to specifically work with first-generation students. During the 2014 Bobcat Student Orientation, she teamed with BSO’s Director Jenny Klein and Assistant Director, Cimmeron O’Connor, to engage first-generation students and their families and let them know that there is a support network in place to help them

"We know the first-year experience is an important factor in student persistence and success," Lash said. "It will be nice to see how much growth this year's first-generation students will experience by the time they are seniors. College is truly a transformative experience and I think that’s particularly true for our first-generation students."

In fall 2014, the We Are First student organization for first-generation students was created with five members. The students attended events together and supported each other in all aspects of college life. In one year, the organization has grown to more than 15 students and its weekly meetings are held at the new Ohio First Scholars House located at 4 University Terrace.

The house is part of a two-year pilot program that was created to provide a place for first-year, first-generation students to live, socialize and study together. The University leased the former fraternity house for two years.

Jesse Snyder, graduate resident director at the OHIO First Scholars House, said the property has provided some immediate benefits for not only the 24 first-year student residents, but also other first-generation students who visit the house for events or just to socialize.

Snyder said that about 75 percent of the residents are members of We Are First. He said the members use the meetings to discuss topical issues, future programming and methods to recruit new members.

"We wanted the house to be a resource for all first-generation students and it has been exactly that," Snyder said. "Living in a small close-knit housing environment has allowed the students to connect with each other on a personal level. It has been fascinating to see how many of them, despite being from very different backgrounds, have found a lot of things in common with each other."

Snyder, a first-generation student himself, said he wishes he could have been a part of a program like this when he was an undergraduate struggling to adapt to college life. He said the first-generation students interact with University staff and their peers about things such as how to fill out financial aid papers, the academic resources available to them and life in general.  

"I've been surprised at how awesome the relationships have been at the house," Snyder said. "Everyone seems engaged and excited about the house and the programming that we have held there so far. Some of the students have already asked me about living in the house next year or about the possibility of the University creating a similar living arrangement for them next year in a residence hall.”

So far this semester, the house residents have hosted movie nights, cookouts and meetings. The students have also attended numerous events on campus as a group.

Kyrstan Rose, a freshman from Lisbon, Ohio, said she chose to live in the OHIO First Scholars House because she hoped it would help her make connections with other students and staff members.

"It has really opened up the door to some great opportunities," Rose said. "It's been my best decision since coming to Ohio University. I've made so many friends that I don't want to ever leave. We're like a family."

Rose said the extra support she has received as a first-generation student has made all the difference in the world.

"I've learned so much already," Rose said. "The staff has helped me apply for scholarships, student loans and all of the essentials you need. Those things helped me because my parents didn't know anything about college. If it wasn't for the first-generation student programs I would be lost."

On Sept. 1, the residents hosted an open house that attracted about 80 people who were able to enjoy free food and guided tours of the property. The open house was also the launch site of the OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program through which University faculty, staff and graduate students who identify as first-generation college graduates are assigned as a mentor to a first-year, first- generation student.

The 44 pairs of mentors and mentees in the pilot program are expected to meet periodically during the year to discuss how the student's transition to college is going.

Director of Residence Life Sarah Oleksy, who helped develop the idea for the OHIO First Scholars House along with Executive Director of Housing and Residence Life Pete Trentacoste, said she is pleased that the dwelling has quickly become a popular hub for first-generation students.

Oleksy said the idea for the house came during a brainstorming session with her colleagues. She said that is when she remembered a presentation that Lash had recently given to her department where she discussed all of the intervention programming that was being done to help first-generation students.

It was then that she and her staff realized that the residential house could be a great way to enhance the University's efforts to increase first-year, first-generation student retention rates.

"We want to keep building this program and eventually transition it to one of the residence halls where we can have both first- and second-year first-generation students living together," Oleksy said. "We will aggressively recruit residents for the house at next year's Bobcat Student Orientation with the hope of filling all 32 beds next year. I am hopeful because I think the house has a very homey feel to it and the current residents enjoy living there."

For more information about OHIO First Scholars visit www.ohio.edu/us/firstgen. To get involved, contact Angela Lash at lash@ohio.edu.