Individuals who are first-generation students pursuing higher education are confronted by a confusing road map of terminology and procedures, all of which are also unfamiliar to their family members. Without adequate support, this experience can be overwhelming and intimidating, resulting in some first-generation students discontinuing their studies. The University of North Georgia (UNG), with 25% of its student population identifying as first generation, wanted to normalize the first-generation experience. In the process, UNG realized that relationships are important to first-generation students. This insight inspired the creation of the Gen 1 mentoring program, which pairs students with first-generation faculty and staff members based on common preferences and interests, degree paths or majors, and availability. Gen 1 connects these students not only with positive role models who have similar experiences but also with resources on campus for their academic success and personal support.
UNG initiated the Gen 1 program in fall 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the virtual learning environment. It was launched at its Gainesville campus, which is more like a community college as opposed to a residential one, serving many adult learners and Latinx students who are typically first generation. A one-year commitment was required. Participating students were encouraged to apply for scholarships to help defray expenses and tuition—a financial deterrent often cited by this population. UNG had no difficulty enlisting mentors who volunteered to work with and support the first cohort of 42 students. The mentors could see themselves in the students and identified with challenges they were facing.
Since 2020, Gen 1 continues to help students pursue their goals in higher education. In fall 2021 and 2022, 30 students participated in the mentoring program each year. Students who simply raise their hands and request a mentor are the ones who participate. Because of its success, Gen 1 is expanding to another UNG campus where the response from first-generation faculty and staff members has been tremendous, despite there not being any financial compensation. In addition, UNG became the first higher education institution in the state to charter a chapter of the Alpha Alpha Alpha Honor Society. Referred to as Tri-Alpha, this honor society promotes academic excellence and provides opportunities for personal growth, leadership development, and campus and community service for first-generation students. Tri-Alpha offered an achievement and status that students could aspire to. Through this formalized mentoring program, UNG hopes to increase the retention and degree completion rates of first-generation students, who, in turn, can inspire up-and-coming students to achieve their goals.
UNG’s Gen 1 program emerged through a collaborative approach. The university wanted to create some continuity between high school and university first-generation programs, so it used the guidelines from Reach Georgia, the high school initiative, as the basis for Gen 1’s own guidelines. Because Reach Georgia’s recommendations and instructions were easily transferrable to Gen 1, UNG did not have to build its program from scratch. Shaping the program for first-generation students has involved the efforts of faculty and staff members from various departments across the university. To fund the scholarships, donors were identified, and fundraisers were held. This approach has been influential in demonstrating and promoting Gen 1 as being a well-rounded program for first-generation students.
UNG is measuring the impact of Gen 1 by analyzing each cohort’s retention rate in pursuing their degrees, their GPAs, and earned credit hours. The most significant numbers, thus far, have been observed in retention. The rates are as follows:
- Cohort 1 fall 2020: The retention rate was 36%, lower than among the first-generation students who did not participate in the Gen 1 program.
- Cohort 2 fall 2021: The retention rate was 58%.
- Cohort 3 fall 2022: The retention rate was 77%.
The university added that the third cohort achieved an average GPA of 3.29 with 96% registered for classes for the 2023 fall semester. As the retention rates suggest, Gen 1 is helping first-generation students feel welcome and at home at UNG. Earning their degrees is where the generational change is going to occur not only for these students but their families and communities as well. Through this transformational program, UNG can help graduate students so they can secure well-paying jobs and fulfilling professional careers that guarantee them a better quality of life.
UNG was slow and deliberate in establishing the Gen 1 program. Support from top university officials was essential to implementing and expanding the program. The organizers and advocates for Gen 1 were able to strategically sit down and identify partners and resources and engage them in some form or fashion.
“Participating in the Gen 1 mentoring program has meant everything to me. My mentor has always been a support system for when I need an ear, a sounding board for bouncing solutions and ideas off of, and she had always had my back, even when I made mistakes. She held me to my goals and helped me create plans to get there, even when that meant trashing the plan and starting from scratch. Participating in the program and having a mentor to guide me means having someone that can answer my questions and, if they can’t, getting me in touch with someone who can.”
Macayla Riddle, member of Cohort 1 of the Gen 1 mentoring program
“As a first-generation college student myself, I wish I had this kind of program when I was in college. You don’t know what you don’t know. Mentoring has been very rewarding for me. I have really enjoyed getting to know my mentee over the years, helping her navigate campus and her college career, and seeing her grow. I am very proud of her and love celebrating her successes.”
Dr. Jeanelle Morgan, UNG biology professor and mentor of the Gen 1 mentoring program (Note: She mentored Daleana Reyes Alejo, a Buford, Georgia, senior pursuing a biology degree.)