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BW unlocks potential in first-generation college students

Since joining BW in 2021, Dr. Timeka Rashid, BW’s vice president for student affairs, has launched initiatives in four key strategic areas: parent and family programming, first-generation support, sophomore engagement and student wellness.

In a column that first appeared on cleveland.com, Rashid explains why support for first-generation college students is crucial and beneficial to all.

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Timeka Rashid, Ph.D. 

If our nation aspires to create opportunity for all, colleges and universities must foster the success of first-generation college students. “First-gen” students are so-named because they are first in their families to pursue higher education. These trailblazers face unique challenges on the path to earning a degree. By recognizing and actively addressing their needs, we can unlock their untapped potential, creating a brighter future for both individuals and society. 

At Baldwin Wallace University, we’ve established a peer-to-peer First-Gen Advisory Council and faculty-staff mentoring program. We offer resources and programming such as first-gen retreats and career conferences. BW was also recently chosen to join a national movement of 350 colleges and universities striving to make college work for this important group of students. As one of the newest members of NASPA’s First Scholars Network, BW aims to advance student success through communities of practice, resources and peer networks.

Why prioritize first-gen?

Why are colleges and universities like BW prioritizing the needs of first-gen students? First, we can break the cycle of generational inequality when we invest in their success.

Education has long been hailed as the great equalizer, offering opportunities for individuals to overcome socioeconomic barriers and achieve social mobility. As these students attain higher levels of education and career success, they inspire others to see the transformative power of education. 

Economic imperative

Investing in first-gen students is also an economic imperative. Studies consistently show that a more educated workforce leads to higher productivity and economic growth. First-gen initiatives cultivate a skilled workforce that drives innovation, fosters entrepreneurship and bolsters economic competitiveness.

Ohio cannot afford to leave first-gen students behind. College graduates are needed to solve labor shortages in fields from healthcare to information technology. According to data from College Possible, degree holders fuel economic growth through “increased earnings, buying power, productivity spillover, and capacity to give back philanthropically.” 

Distinctive leaders

Because first-gen students often demonstrate exceptional resilience, determination and adaptability in navigating unfamiliar academic terrain, they often make great leaders. Supporting their educational journey not only equips them for professional success but also cultivates leadership qualities. As leaders, these students draw on their experiences of overcoming obstacles, thereby enriching organizations and communities. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Finally, our efforts also benefit the fabric of our campus communities. The perspectives of first-generation students contribute to an inclusive academic community that celebrates diversity and encourages dialogue across cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.

However, as noted by Lisa M. Nunn, author of "College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life,” “Belonging is something that communities provide for individuals; it is not something that individuals can garner for themselves." Therefore, colleges must provide spaces and resources to support this population. Fostering a sense of belonging, as well as providing comprehensive support services, such as mentorship programs, academic advising and financial aid, improves persistence, retention and graduation rates.

Agents of change

While support for first-generation students can be seen as an act of social justice in service of educational equity, it is also an investment in our collective future. By recognizing and addressing the barriers these students face, we can help them to harness the transformative power of education.

As they thrive, first-gen students become agents of change, breaking generational cycles of inequality and shaping a society that is more equitable and prosperous for all. It is our shared responsibility to ensure that every aspiring first-gen student receives the educational support they need to make a lasting impact in our communities and on the world. 

A version of this column first appeared on cleveland.com and Northeast Ohio SUN Newspapers. 

 

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