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OHIO’s first-generation mentors: Serving students while building connections, community

This special Compass series highlights the ways in which Ohio University staff and faculty are living their passion while making a difference – on campus, in the community, in their fields, and around the world.This special Compass series highlights the ways in which Ohio University staff and faculty are living their passion while making a difference – on campus, in the community, in their fields, and around the world.

What started out as a Compass article seeking Ohio University employees’ input in crafting a campus-wide support system for first-generation students has flourished into a mentoring program that has gone beyond serving students and is facilitating connections and creating a community throughout OHIO.

The OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program is just one component of Ohio University’s robust OHIO First Scholars Program. Housed within the Allen Student Advising Center, the OHIO First Scholars Program provides a network of support and opportunities for the University’s first-generation students while also celebrating the unique strengths these students bring to the University. It’s a population of students that has grown on the Athens Campus from one-quarter of OHIO’s first-year class to approximately one-third as this fall the University shifted its definition of “first generation” from students with no parent/guardian who has completed an associate’s degree to those with no parent/guardian who has completed a bachelor’s degree. 

Launched in fall 2015, the OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program connects first-year, first-generation students with OHIO faculty, staff and full-time graduate students who were also first-generation students or who have a vested interest in supporting first-generation students. In its first two years, the program served approximately 120 first-year, first-generation students. This academic year it is on track to serve an additional 80-plus students – all thanks to the dedication of OHIO employees who volunteer their time and talents to the program.

“They are an amazing bunch,” Angela Lash, associate director of the Allen Student Advising Center who also serves as director of the OHIO First Scholars Program, said of the individuals who serve as mentors. “They work in departments and roles across the Athens Campus. They are deans. They are advisors. They are classified staff and faculty. They are student affairs professionals, administrators and graduate students. I could go on – they are everywhere! No matter what they do on campus, they do have one thing in common: They truly care about supporting our first-gen students.”

Lash, an OHIO alumna and first-generation student herself, said it was that care and genuine desire to see the University’s first-generation students succeed that led to the creation of the mentoring program. 

“I actually really like the way the mentoring program started because it developed fairly organically,” she said.

In summer 2015, Lash published an article in Compass seeking faculty and staff who were interested in helping to develop outreach efforts to first-generation students. Approximately 50 OHIO employees, many of them first-generation students themselves, responded and were invited to a meeting.

“We spent some time talking about our own first-gen experiences and how we thought we could be helpful to students,” Lash explained. “The mentoring program came from that conversation.”

Angela Lash, associate director of the Allen Student Advising Center and director of the OHIO First Scholars Program, facilitates one of two training programs that were held this past summer for Ohio University employees serving in the mentoring program.

Angela Lash, associate director of the Allen Student Advising Center and director of the OHIO First Scholars Program, facilitates one of two training programs that were held this past summer for Ohio University employees serving in the OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program. 

The Allen Student Advising Center piloted the OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program that fall semester with 44 mentors. The following fall semester, 70 OHIO employees volunteered to participate, and this fall 77 employees are mentors. In addition, nearly 60 OHIO employees serve as OHIO First Scholars Advocates, making themselves available to meet with first-generation students as needed.

“There are varying levels of engagement. We’re not only facilitating connections across campus but also trying to raise awareness about how many first-generation students we have,” said Lash, who serves as both a mentor and an advocate. “For many of us involved in these efforts, it feels like giving back to someone in a way that we wish had been available to us as students, or that was available to us, and this is our way of paying it forward.”

A mentor-mentee win-win

Developed as a means of putting first-generation students on a path to academic success from their very first days as a Bobcat, the primary goal of the OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program is aligned directly with the mission of the University – the personal and professional growth of students. 

“Obviously, in the long run, we hope to impact student success and persistence, but there are other pieces of that as well,” Lash explained. “It’s not just about keeping students here. It may very well be that a student in our program would have persisted through graduation anyway, but we want to help them get the most of their experience and make connections on campus that they may have otherwise missed or been reluctant to take advantage of.”

Through bi-weekly face-to-face meetings and other interactions, the mentors listen to their mentees, assist them in setting goals, administer a level of understanding about higher education and its culture, and provide general support and guidance. 

“We try to level the playing field for students who may not be getting that information from home” Lash said. “We don’t assume that these students don’t know anything about how Ohio University or any institution works, but we try to help the mentees become academically and socially integrated into the University in ways that they might not.”

The OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program was designed to also benefit the faculty and staff who serve as mentors, feeding their desire to be of service to and learn from this distinct group of students and connecting them to both first-generation students and their Ohio University employee peers.

“I think any relationship with students is reciprocal,” Lash said. “I take a lot away from my interactions with students, and I don’t think it’s advantageous in any way to assume that we’re the only ones who have something to give.”

A look at those who serve

Like Lash, Carissa Anderson counts herself among the OHIO First Scholars mentors who have found the program to be extremely rewarding.

Assistant dean for Regional Higher Education, Anderson signed up to serve as a mentor in fall 2016, driven by a desire to be a friendly resource to a first-year student with whom she could relate.

Anderson recalled her own college experience and the moment she discovered the unique perspective she brought to that experience as a first-generation student from Appalachia.

“I was sitting in a sociology class, and we were talking about different demographics and how that impacts classes and campuses,” Anderson explained. “I didn’t know being Appalachian was a thing because I was from Southeast Ohio and I didn’t realize that had any significance. Then we started talking about first-generation students, and I thought, ‘Oh, well yeah, that would be me.’ I hadn’t really ever given much thought to the fact that my parents didn’t have college degrees and that that was somehow a unique experience for me.”

When Anderson found out about OHIO’s mentoring program, she saw it as an opportunity to connect with a student who may or may not have had that moment of realization and to do so in a way that’s less formal, allowing for really open conversation.

“That would have been something that I would have maybe wanted or benefitted from when I was a student,” she said. 

Anderson was matched with Kassidy Barrett, a music education major from Jackson, Ohio, allowing the two to connect not only as first-generation students but also as Southeast Ohio natives.

“I understand differently what it’s like to be from Southeast Ohio and not be very far away from family when you’re going to school, which is a really different experience than someone who is coming from hours away to go to school,” Anderson said. “It’s really easy to get in the car and go home, and it’s really easy for home to come to you.”

The pair would meet at least once every two weeks – sometimes over lunch or coffee, and once in a failed attempt to go to what turned out to be a sold-out OHIO Hockey game – and talk about everything from school to friends and family.

“I didn’t want it to be an authoritative relationship,” Anderson said. “I just wanted to get to know her and to have an opportunity, when appropriate, to provide some helpful suggestions to make her first year a little easier emotionally, socially, academically.”

“My job is something that impacts students and connects to them, but I don’t typically get to develop those relationships with students, and so that I think has been one of the most-rewarding components of this program,” Anderson added. “It gave me the ability to see things that I wouldn’t typically get to see and to remember what it was like to be a student. I think the program can help us as individuals and professionals to remember what it is that we are doing and why we are doing it. It’s really easy to forget what it was like to be a scared freshman who didn’t have family stories to give you an idea of what to expect, and it’s helpful to remember how fragile this entire environment can be.”

Mentor Michael Rodriguez and mentee Sedrick Kirschman pose for a photo while enjoying lunch at the District on West Green.

Mentor Michael Rodriguez and mentee Sedrick Kirschman pose for a photo while enjoying lunch at the District on West Green. Photo courtesy of Michael Rodriguez

A 17-year OHIO employee, nearly all of Michael Rodriguez’s work involves interacting with students. As director of production services and student development for WOUB Center of Public Media, he has played a role in the professional growth of hundreds of aspiring journalists and media professionals. 

A first-generation student himself, Rodriguez signed up to serve as an OHIO First Scholars mentor in fall 2016. He knew Lash from participating the University’s Summer Institute for Diversity Education (SIDE) program, and a group of OHIO employees who had participated in that program decided to sign up be first-generation mentors.

“We’re like a brotherhood now,” Rodriguez said of the relationships he’s developed with his SIDE peers, adding that he saw serving in the mentoring program as an opportunity to get to know – and, if needed, help – a student. 

Rodriguez was paired with Sedrick Kirschman, a student from the Cincinnati area who is enrolled in University College and planning to major in visual communication. 

“It didn’t take very long until we were really comfortable with each other,” Rodriguez said of his relationship with Kirschman. “He told me a little bit about his background, and I told him about my culture and the Southwest.”

Their relationship took on a new direction when Kirschman shared with Rodriguez his portfolio. 

“I told him, those are some skills, and with some other professional guidance, I think the sky can be the limit for you,” Rodriguez said, noting that he encouraged Kirschman to participate in School of Visual Communication events and programs and has endorsed him for admission into the school.

The pair spent their time talking about everything from school and next steps in his educational journey to entrepreneurship and things happening in Kirschman’s personal life. In return, Rodriguez said he learned quite a bit about how learning methods have changed over the years.

“Seeing his creative entrepreneurship develop and his confidence grow over the year was very rewarding,” Rodriguez said. “Just seeing things through the eyes of a young adult and being there when they achieve those ‘wow’ moments, that’s something to be passionate about.”

(From left) OHIO First Scholars mentors Julie Suhr, Carissa Anderson and Joy Cobb share some of their experiences with the program during a mentor training session.

(From left) OHIO First Scholars mentors Julie Suhr, Carissa Anderson and Joy Cobb share some of their experiences with the program during a mentor training session.

A first-generation student whose own high school guidance counselor advised her against going to college because of her family’s farming business, Julie Suhr signed up to be an OHIO First Scholars mentor in fall 2016. A professor of psychology and director of clinical training in OHIO’s Department of Psychology, Suhr saw an opportunity to both honor and give back to individuals who, later in life, she recognized as her informal mentors. 

“I didn’t realize they were mentors because I was really bad at realizing I needed mentors or I could have benefitted from having mentors,” Suhr explained “Looking back, there were so many things that I didn’t think or know to ask. If there had been somebody who I just could have informally chatted with and said, ‘Hey, did you know this?’… It’s all those little implicit, small but very meaningful things that, for example, get you the classes you want or the schedule you like, and when you don’t have that immediate support, navigating college can be very inefficient.”

Suhr was assigned Dylan Durham, an accounting major from Jackson, Ohio, as her mentee. True to her expertise in psychology, Suhr said she set out to ensure that Durham turn what literature often defines as a disadvantage – being a first-gen student – into a strength, a challenge that someone who is savvy and uses their resources turns into a positive. It was a goal, she added, that Durham met on day one.

“He was already at the goal I had for him, which was to at least be ready to ask for help and take advantage of your resources because that’s not a sign of weakness – that’s a sign of using your system wisely,” Suhr said. “As a student, I really was not good at that, partly out of naivety. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I also didn’t know who to ask. Also, being a farmer’s kid, you’re fiercely independent. You’re supposed to be able to do it yourself, and I didn’t realize that was actually a weakness.”

During their meetings, Suhr would answer as many of Durham’s questions as she could and direct him to other OHIO employees and resources when needed. They would go for walks on the bike path, including a walk to Larry’s Dawg House because, as Suhr put it, “Everyone who lives in Athens should know Larry’s Dawg House.” And they took advantage of free tickets provided by the mentoring program to a Mountain Stage show.

More often than not, Suhr said she found herself playing the role of an encourager.

“I kept telling him over and over again, you are way smarter at this than I was,” she said. “You are 18 years old and you are doing this, and that is really awesome – just reminding him that he is remarkable.”

Suhr said her experience in the program has served as a good reminder about a life she once lived.

“Even though I lived that life myself, it was a long, long time ago, and the world has changed in very dramatic ways,” she said. “Hopefully, this experience has made me more empathetic to all of my advisees and serves as a personal reminder. My own kids grew up very differently than I did, but I want them to remember how diverse their world is and not everybody has the same advantages.”

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Frank, who serves as an OHIO First Scholars mentor and advocate, addresses his fellow mentors during a training session held on Aug. 9.

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Frank, who serves as an OHIO First Scholars mentor and advocate, addresses his fellow mentors during a training session held on Aug. 9.

Feedback from those who have been served

“I don’t think I could have made it through my first year with them, and they were always just an email or text away.”

That’s how Dylan Durham describes the OHIO First Scholars experience he had with both his mentor, Julie Suhr, and the program director, Angela Lash.

Durham was in a College Success class at his high school when he received an email from Lash inviting him to engage in OHIO First Scholars and to participate in its mentoring program. At the advice of his instructor, he decided to jump right in. He requested the first-generation Specialized Living Experience in Ryors Hall, asked Lash for help in creating his class schedule, enrolled in a first-generation one-credit hour seminar course spring semester, took advantage of free tutoring offered to first-generation students, and signed up for the mentoring program.

“I always love getting together with Julie,” Durham said of his mentor. “It’s such a stress-reliever. She gave me scheduling advice, class advice, professional tips, and she’s also there as a friend. That’s another thing I really like about the mentoring program. Coming in as a freshman, staff and faculty can be a little scary. Having Julie there made that so much easier because it helped to see faculty as people just like you.” 

Among Durham’s favorite memories with Suhr was the time she offered him a break from studying for finals to go for a walk with her two dogs. Durham was missing his dog and jumped at the chance to set aside his books, get some exercise and have a little fun. 

“It’s a good memory of just getting together and relaxing before finals because things get overwhelming for both students and faculty,” Durham said. “Everything I did with Julie made a difference in at least some small way. Just having somebody there who actually cared made this transition so much easier.”

Sedrick Kirschman felt similarly about his mentor, Michael Rodriguez.

“Mike made a difference by giving me advice about school and life itself,” Kirschman said, noting that he signed up for the mentoring program to get a better feel for Ohio University and how best to use available resources. “Freshman year came with some tough strings attached. Mike helped me talk about some things and talked about other perspectives to certain situations.”

Kirschman said it was hard to pinpoint a favorite memory he had of working with Rodriguez, adding, “But I do know every time me and Mike participated in an event, we did have fun the whole time.”

Kassidy Barrett said of her mentor experience with Carissa Anderson, “It has been one of the biggest helps that I’ve ever had in school – having that mentor to just talk to and be able to tell what’s going on or what you’ve been through.”

That was precisely the reason Barrett signed up for the program. 

“I figured having someone that I could talk to and that’s kind of been in my position and can help give me some advice about what I should be doing was a lot better than just going in blind,” she said.

Barrett said Anderson helped her with her academic scheduling and study habits, served as a source of calm and support when she was battling an injury that was sidelining her from the Marching 110, and made her feel like she wasn’t alone in times of difficulty. She noted that Anderson was one of the first to celebrate with her when she found out she passed her Spring Jury and would be a sophomore. 

“Carissa is always going to be a person that I know I can go to – we’re actually meeting today,” Barrett said. “I would definitely tell an incoming first-gen freshman, get that mentor, get all of the free tutoring that you can, use all of the different things that the first-gen program offers you because you don’t realize how much you need it until you really need it.”

Looking ahead

Anderson, Lash, Rodriguez and Suhr are continuing to serve as mentors this year and are staying in contact with their previous mentees. 

Suhr has recruited many of the graduate students in the Department of Psychology to serve as mentors.

Anderson is planning to explore how to bring the OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program, which is confined to the Athens Campus for now, to the University’s five regional campuses, where first-generation students make up closer to 50 percent of the student population. 

“We’re really building a first-gen community, and I love that,” said Lash.


For more information on the OHIO First Scholars Program, all of its student resources, and how you, as either a student or employee, can be involved in the program, click here

Annual reports show impact of mentoring program

“Our first-generation mentors are absolutely making a difference,” said Angela Lash, pointing not only to the connections being made throughout the Athens Campus but also to data generated for OHIO First Scholars’ annual reports.

The program’s annual report looks at students participating in the OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program. The reports examine these students’ GPA, academic standing and retention in comparison to their continuing-generation peers, the overall first-gen population and a group that is matched for each mentoring program participant based on factors like high school GPA and standardized test scores.

Notable points from the AY2015-16 report include:

Program participants were retained to fall at only 1.6 percent lower than continuing-generation students, which is a significant decrease in the gap the University typically sees between the two groups.

Program participants had higher fall term GPAs (3.10 compared to 3.04) and were retained to spring at higher rates (97.4 percent compared to 94.6 percent) than continuing-generation students. They also had a higher percentage in good academic standing (94.9 percent compared to 90.7 percent) after fall term than continuing-generation students.

Program participants had higher spring term GPAs (2.79 compared to 2.69 and 2.73) and a higher percentage of students in good academic standing (86.8 percent compared to 78.4 percent and 81.6 percent) after spring term than both their matched pairs and the overall first-gen group.

Notable points from the AY2016-17 report include:

Program participants were retained from fall to spring at 95.8 percent, which is higher than the percentage for all other groups.

Program participants’ average fall term GPAs (2.88) were slightly lower than matched pairs and overall first-generation students (2.89), but the group had an overall higher percentage of students in good academic standing (88.7 percent compared to 81.2 percent and 87.3 percent) after fall term. 

Spring term GPA (2.71) and percentage in good academic standing (82.4 percent) were slightly lower for mentor program participants compared to the matched pairs (2.74 and 83.3 percent) and overall first-generation students (2.74 and 84.9 percent), but that could be explained by the significant percentage of students who were retained from fall to spring, which included students who did not do well in fall but persisted into spring term. 

Also included in the program’s annual report are comments from students who participated in the mentoring program, which were provided through program evaluation at the end of the academic year. 

Here is how some of those students responded to the question: What did you gain from your participation in the OHIO First Scholars Mentoring Program?

"I connected with my mentor on many levels, and she helped me with certain processes that I wouldn’t have known how to do on my own." 

"I loved being a part of the mentorship program. My mentor was AWESOME! He was always keeping in touch with me whether it be over email or meeting for coffee. At first I was a little weary of the program, I wasn't sure I would be able to truly connect with a member of the faculty and staff here at Ohio University, but I was pleasantly surprised. Any problem I had from roommate troubles to panics about changing majors to scheduling for next semester – he was my guy! He was the perfect model for what a mentor should be: selfless, caring and genuine not only with me but with everyone he meets."

"My mentor has become such a valuable resource. I ask about parking, exams, scheduling and even where to eat if I’m here on the weekends. My mentor was my favorite part of being first-gen here." 

"Having someone that I can relate to and talk to when things get rough. Knowing that she has been through similar things and is able to give me advice has been really helpful." 

"The mentoring program has provided me with someone to go to when I’m stressed out. It is often hard for me to express my stress to my parents because they aren’t familiar with what is happening. My mentor has really helped me because she understands what I’m going through."