First Generation College student Celebration Day

MACOMB/MOLINE, IL – According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 30 percent of college students are first-generation students. To celebrate first-generation students, Nov. 8 has been designated as National First Generation College Celebration Day. This day was selected to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965.

Much like other hallmark legislation of that era, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, HEA was intended to help level the playing field that had long been weighed against Americans from minority and low-income backgrounds. In addition to creating federal grants and loan programs to help students finance their education, the legislation made key investments in higher education institutions. HEA also ushered in programs, like the Federal TRIO program, which assist with the preparation, procedures and direction in pursuing postsecondary access, retention and completion for low-income and/or first generation college graduates.

At Western Illinois University, the Fall 2020 new freshmen first generation student population is 42.2 percent. Derek Johnson, a junior law enforcement and justice administration major from Lyons, said that WIU has provided him with many opportunities to be a "complete college student."

"I have been given the change to experience work life, student life and a social life on this campus," he added.

According to Associate Provost Mark Mossman, the Western First Year Experience (FYE) program provides support for first-generation students through their first year of college and beyond.

"We work with faculty and staff devoted to first year students to identify the unique experiences, address the specific needs and highlight the strengths of first-generation students," he added. "Supporting the success of first-generation students is something we do very well at Western."

In addition to the FYE program, WIU has in place numerous other programs and resources, including the student organization, Western's 1st Generation Society (W1GS). According to Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions and W1GS Adviser Melissa Telles, the organization is designed to give students a way to be more connected with other first generation students and with the University. The society works to educate its members about the resources available, get them involved in campus activities and become active volunteers.

"As a first generation college student, Western has provided me with many resources to make my experience here welcoming and smooth," said Shanyah Nance, freshman psychology major at WIU-Quad Cities from Rock Island. "WIU is always on top of communicating to their student body. I really feel the love at this school."

The Office of Retention Initiatives (ORI) and the Student Development and Success Center (SDSC) have a number of student success programs in place to help students, including the Leatherneck Care Referral program, which gives students, families, faculty and staff, an opportunity to refer students and situations to staff for personal follow-up. This program helps to ensure students are not falling through the cracks and have access to resources and support at WIU. The offices also provide additional resources and education for first-generation college students and families.

"It's crucial that we have effective communication and support for families and students so they know what to expect during their time at WIU. There are a lot of procedures in place within the academic experience, and by thinking about things through the scope of a first-generation college student or family member, we can easily rewrite directions, processes and other information to be more user-friendly for everyone," Interim Executive Director of Retention Initiatives Justin Schuch explained.

The ORI also coordinates the Building Connections Mentor program, in which volunteer faculty and staff serve as mentors to assist in the transition to campus throughout the first semester, while the Connections Mapping program provides insight and early intervention opportunities.

"As a first generation college student, WIU has provided me with an opportunity branch out from where I grew up and continue my education at a university that helps me be successful," said Grant Downin, a senior law enforcement and justice administration major from Table Grove.

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