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A Web Letter from the Office of the Provost - April 2020

By Eric Bender

Momentum building for 1st Generation Students

A grassroots effort to support first-generation students is taking off at Purdue.

One wave began three years ago as Student Success Programs began developing its strategic plan. Consultants interviewed faculty, staff and students to see what the office was doing well and what it could do better. They found strong interest in finding ways to help first-generation students succeed.

"There was quite a drum beat," said Daniel Carpenter, executive director of Student Success Programs. "The consensus seemed to be that someone should do something about it."

Yet, while Student Success Programs such as Purdue Promise and Horizons already work with first-generation students, many other areas of the university also impact these students, said Dennis Bowling, senior associate director of Student Success Programs.

To learn more about the topic, a symposium was organized by Bowling; Lowell Kane, director of student engagement and belonging and director of the LGBTQ Center; and Joel Ebarb, senior associate dean for undergraduate education and international programs, College of Liberal Arts.

To their surprise, over 300 registered and 241 attended. 

"To see 300 people consider devoting a half a day without knowing what to expect was the greatest surprise to me," Kane said. "This was recognition that this is an issue for the entire campus population."

Besides hearing from a national speaker, attendees learned from a panel of students and heard about current efforts in four colleges—engineering, education, liberal arts and science. For example, engineering, under the leadership of Alina Alexeenko, associate dean for undergraduate education, has created a college-wide First Gen Success Team.  The team is focused on generating additional data-analysis, developing a communication plan and creating new initiatives to support first-generation students.   

The symposium attendees also learned about the supporting data, the collection of which has placed Purdue at the forefront of institutions with a proven commitment of advance outcomes for these students. Last May, Purdue was chosen to participate in the inaugural First Forward cohort, a national initiative designed to improve experiences for first-generation college students.

Purdue data show that about 20 percent of incoming undergraduate students at the West Lafayette campus are from families in which the parents did not earn a bachelor's degree. First-generation status is substantially more common at Purdue for two ethnic groups: Hispanic/Latino (31 percent) and Black or African American (29 percent), according to a 2016 report by Purdue's Office of Institutional Research.

 Bowling said data show first generation students also are:

  • More worried about debt.
  • Not as active in undergrad research and study abroad.
  • Underrepresented in STEM colleges like engineering and science.
  • More likely to stay in their home state after graduation.

Ebarb added, "These first-generation students also bring resiliency and grit, a key pillar of Purdue's Steps to Leaps," a holistic program to enhance student well-being and overall professional skills. "Even though they might not be as familiar with the college experience, they actively seek information when needed. We need to see them through the lens of assets like these, instead of just focusing on their deficits. How can we capitalize on those assets?"

For next steps, many at the symposium suggested that the university offer some sort of training for faculty and staff to learn more about these students and how best to serve them.

"Some have suggested that this look like the Green Zone training offered by the Veterans Success Center or Safe Zone training offered by the LGBTQ Center," Carpenter said.

There is also strong interest in expanding Purdue participation in the national First-Generation College Celebration Day each Nov. 8. Several Purdue units and colleges participated last fall, but each did things independently of the other, their efforts dependent on budget and staff.

One other take-away from the symposium was that many Purdue faculty and staff are the first in their families to attend college, Bowling said. They have stories to share about their struggles, can suggest what might have helped them and have an affinity for seeing these students succeed.

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