IC Expands First-Gen Student Programming

By Dan Verderosa, May 8, 2019
First Generation Center will help new students acclimate to the college.
Black and gold cords with tassles

First-generation students have the option to wear black and gold cords during commencement.

(Photo by Dan Verderosa/Ithaca College)

From financial aid and course registration to unusual terminology like “registrar” and “provost,” the college experience can be intimidating and difficult to navigate. It’s even harder for first-generation students, who don’t have college graduates in their families that they can go to for guidance and advice. New and expanded programming at Ithaca College aims to support first-gen students throughout their time on campus.

The First Generation Center is supported by a fund established by Ithaca College Board of Trustees Chair Dave Lissy ’87 and his wife Suzanne Lissy ’88, through the Lissy Family Foundation. It will be located within the Office of New Student and Transition Programs. Among the programming offered by the center is the FIRST Look pre-orientation program, FIRST Place residential learning community and year-round programming focused on academic preparedness and time management, as well as a lecture series and leadership development opportunities.

IC’s efforts to assist first-gen students have already earned plaudits, as the college was recently designated a “First Forward” institution by the Center for First-Generation Student Success. The First Forward designation recognizes institutions of higher education that have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes of first-generation college students.

“Ithaca is at the forefront of what colleges and universities are doing with regard to this work,” said Jacqueline Winslow, director of new student and transition programs, who currently oversees programming for first-gen students.

“We as first-gen students are breaking barriers. These programs are helping us start on the right path and adjust to a college campus.”

Felix Santos ’22

Dean of Students Bonnie Prunty explained that higher education has traditionally employed a one-size-fits-all approach to orienting new students, but the national trend is moving toward an identity-based approach that looks at what specific groups, like first-gen or transfer students, might need. “We want to make sure we’re supporting these students with access to the knowledge and information needed to be successful,” she said.

Roughly 15% of students at IC identify as first-gen, meaning they and their siblings are the first in their family to attend and graduate from a four-year residential college in the U.S. According to Diana Castillo ’20, president of IC’s First Generation Organization, these students often need assistance with big-picture things like registering for classes and navigating the housing process, as well as day-to-day issues like reaching out to faculty members if they are struggling in class.

“We don’t have the advice of people at home,” Castillo said. “We rely on faculty and staff who are willing to help us through our journey at school.”

Ithaca Firsts

The core of the center’s programming is FIRST Look, a pre-orientation program for first-gen students. FIRST Look allows incoming first-gen students to get familiar with campus, meet with peers and connect with faculty and staff. Students also create a personal success plan with goals centered on involvement, academics, wellness and relationships.

“It’s a chance to meet and connect and learn a little bit and build more confidence before you’re in the sea of all 1,600 first-year students,” said Winslow.

Castillo’s first visit to IC’s campus was for her summer orientation. She said FIRST Look provides an important benefit for first-gen students, who may find the traditional orientation experience overwhelming.

“I think it’s a great way to help first-gen students get their foot in the door while they’re on campus, rather than wait until orientation and have everything thrown at them,” she said.

Two students pose in front of fountains

First Generation Organization founder Omar Stoute ’18 (left) and Quaine Joseph ’18 (right) pose for a photo by the Dillingham fountains after the 2018 Commencement ceremony. (Photo by Allison Usavage ’11/Ithaca College)

Prunty said that meeting other first gen students who are experiencing the same challenges can be particularly important. “We want to let each first-gen student know that they are not the only person that is having this experience,” she said.

First Look was piloted with 20 student participants at the start of the fall 2018 semester. Winslow said that the gift supporting the First Generation Center enables them to offer the program to more students.

Felix Santos ’22 participated in the inaugural First Look program. He said it was helpful to get an early look around campus, receive advice from peers and make friends with other first-gen students.

“We have a responsibility,” said Santos. “We as first-gen students are breaking barriers. These programs are helping us start on the right path and adjust to a college campus.”

Accompanying FIRST Look in the 2019-20 academic year will be FIRST Place, a residential learning community for first-gen students. Located on the fifth floor of East Tower, FIRST Place will be open to approximately 22 new and returning students. It will provide a yearlong, sustained opportunity for first-gen students to connect with each other and provide an opportunity for support and growth by both their peers, staff and faculty.

“The fact that there’s going to be a designed space for first-gen students to live together and have that journey together is really beneficial,” said Castillo.

Other programming offered by the center includes academic and engagement workshops, organized in collaboration with campus partners, focusing on student success and transitioning to college; Student Leadership Institute workshops; and the First Gen Mentor program, which pairs first-gen students with faculty and staff who also identify as first-gen. Additional programming is also being explored.

“This is a unique opportunity to develop new programs — while building upon a strong foundation of innovation — to best serve first-generation students.”

Lia Muñoz ’16, Assistant Director of New Student and Transition Programs

Winslow stresses that collaboration across campus is key to serving first-gen students.

“It’s all of our jobs at the college to support first-gen students,” Winslow said. “The hope is that by having a central location we can be a resource area, a place that can share and advocate for best practices, and a place where we can collaborate and coordinate together.”

The First Generation Center will be run by the assistant director of new student and transition programs, whose work is focused on first-generation and sophomore student initiatives. Lia Muñoz ’16 will begin in that position in May.

“This is a unique opportunity to develop new programs — while building upon a strong foundation of innovation — to best serve first-generation students,” said Muñoz. “I am looking forward to a culture of collaboration as we foster and fuel programs to support a student population so integral to the fabric that is Ithaca College.”