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How University at Buffalo is Using Mentoring to Support the Success of First-Generation Students

By Graham Hammill

It’s no secret that first-generation students face additional hurdles to accessing and completing a college education. The University at Buffalo (UB) is proud to enroll a sizable first-generation student population, with nearly one in five incoming freshmen being the first in their family to attend college. These students’ success is inextricably linked with the University at Buffalo’s success at large.

That’s why we launched our Proud to be First Initiative. The initiative supports the academic, social, and professional development of first-generation students through summer bridge programs, peer mentoring, and other supports. The first-generation initiative is guided by several expert committees, which provide strategic guidance on program assessment, faculty participation, marketing and communications, peer mentoring, and programming. Through this collaborative approach, we are mobilizing and empowering faculty, staff and students throughout campus to support our first-generation students.

UB’s work in this area is informed by – and informing – the work of the Eastern Cluster of APLU’s Powered by Publics initiative. The Eastern Cluster is convening institutions to collaboratively address barriers to student success for first-generation students. Boosting their success is a priority across our institutions. By working together, we can learn things we couldn’t while working alone.

Thanks in part to conversations in the Eastern Cluster, UB is expanding its work to increase support for first-generation students. The university’s Graduate School of Education has established a Research Center on the First-Generation College Student Experience focused on putting research into practice.

The center plays a key role in guiding our work to boost first-generation student success. We have leveraged its expertise to design, and assess, the success of programs aimed at barriers facing this set of students. This partnership has resulted in research-based student supports with strong assessment components as well as more faculty research on first-generation students. This partnership marries UB’s education and research missions to yield a far greater impact than either stream of work could have on its own. That’s the power of public universities’ public research mission, and we think this work can help improve first-generation student success not just at UB, but across the State of New York and at other institutions in APLU’s Powered by Publics initiative.

Of course, the pandemic has amplified the challenges all students face, but particularly those who are the first in their families to attend college. This summer, we’re continuing – and enhancing – our peer mentoring program for first-generation students. Participating students will now be able to take credit-yielding courses during the summer session, alongside hundreds of other incoming students, as part of the programming. We’ve also expanded our welcome weekend activities to include an academics-themed day for students and increased the number of success coaches in our UB Seminar to help students transition into college at a time when students are facing greater obstacles than usual.

These challenges are common across higher education. Not nearly enough first-generation students who enroll in college have the support needed to complete a degree. The challenges they face are manifold, and we believe leveraging a research-based approach is key to addressing them – not just at UB, but at Powered by Publics institutions and ultimately all of higher education. As we continue to assess our programs, we look forward to sharing the insights we have gained putting research into practice with our cluster members and the broader Powered by Publics group. Through shared-knowledge and best practices we can collectively improve the academic experience and outcomes of our students, ensuring all will be proud to be first.

  • Powered by Publics
  • Student Success in Focus

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