Utah State University’s Aggie First Scholar (AFS) program has received an anonymous $15,000 donation, with the donor challenging others to match or exceed those funds to help support the program. AFS is excited to have the donation campaign as part of First-Generation Student Week, which will begin Nov. 3 and culminate on Nov. 9 as part of National First-Generation Student Day.
AFS is a program designed to aid first-generation (first-gen) college students in their pursuit of earning their college degree. USU defines a first-gen college student as a student whose parents and/or guardians did not receive a four-year, U.S. degree. About 20 percent of USU undergraduates are first-gen college students. AFS provides first-gen college students with the opportunity to receive mentorship from other first-gen students, as well as the mentorship of USU faculty and staff who also identify as first-gen college graduates.
“Aggie First Scholars is a student success program specifically for first-gen college students,” said Retention Programs Coordinator Charity Maeda Van den Akker. “A huge component of this program is the mentoring part of it. We have upperclassmen who also identify as first-gen college students who are mentoring first year Aggie First Scholars. They're put into small mentoring groups and that becomes their cohort as they move through the program.”
USU’s First-Generation Student Week is sponsored by the Aggie First Scholar program, USU Dining Services, Student Support Services, the Office of Admissions and the Advancement Office. Because of the inability to hold an in-person event this year, AFS has instead decided to create a week of social media campaigning that will lead into its virtual National First-Generation Student Day on Nov. 9. The campaign, deemed the “I’m First” campaign, will focus on various topics, including facts on voting, awareness on what it means to be a first-gen college student, intersection of being BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or a person of color) and first-gen, first-gen USU faculty and staff success stories, and the different resources available to first-gen college students. On Monday, Nov. 9, AFS will hold its celebration day, streamed via Zoom.
“November 9 is when we're going to really do that big push of matching our anonymous donor, that $15,000,” Van den Akker said. “We're going to do a tabling event for the virtual Zoom party. We’re going to do door prizes, with dining services and their catering trucks going to drop by student dorms who sign up to be a part of the door prizes and if they win in real time, they’ll get a price delivered to their door. And then if they live off campus, they will receive an email in real time informing them what they’ve won.”
Aside from its National Celebration week, AFS also provides many mentorship opportunities for first-gen students. Students in the AFS program will have the opportunity to create relationships with peers and faculty members who themselves identify as first-gen students. Once a month, students have the chance to have lunch with their mentors, where the program meets together to offer discussion points and topics meant to help students navigate their time at the university and provide them with a support group that can help them learn the “tricks of the trade.” AFS not only helps students learn how to become lifelong learners and how to succeed in academics, but also tips for first-gen students that they may not be aware of, because they are the first in their family to attend college.
“It’s the big stuff like how to prepare for graduate school applications or scholarship applications,” said Student Retention and Completion Director Heidi Kesler. “But it’s also the small things– things many take for granted because they heard their mom’s or dad’s stories of college. All freshmen have things they have no idea about college, it’s a new experience for everyone. The difference about multi-generational students is they have that safe net of parents and cousins and siblings that they can say, ‘I wasn't sure about this, did I do that right,’ and they can get the answers. First-gen students don't have that built-in, so AFS provides that for them. That's why the mentoring is so important.”
AFS is currently working to expand its mentoring pool, inviting faculty and staff who identify as first-gen college graduates to sign up to be mentors. A recent poll of university faculty and staff revealed that 81 faculty members and 95 staff members, including USU President Noelle Cockett, self-identify as first-gen college graduates. The university recently created the position of AFS Coordinator and selected Van den Akker for the job, who herself is a first-gen college graduate and USU alumna. The program is working with the faculty and staff to become mentors, so students can see more success stories and also expand their thinking on viable career paths.
“It’s always been our goal to continue to grow the program and to get to the point where we were involving faculty and staff,” Kesler said. “It’s so critical that students be able to see other first-gens that have succeeded. It is important for them to see faculty that are making a good living and that have great lives while doing what they love.”
AFS has many ways for students to get involved. Throughout the school year, the program offers its PowerUP sessions, designed to offer timely resources to students and seminars to give them more information and direction. New this year, the program has also begun its My Potential Within seminar, allowing students the opportunity to engage with faculty, staff and peers and share their own stories. These sessions go hand-in-hand with USU course offerings such as the 1050 Habits of Mind course and the 2160 Student Applied Leadership course.
“I wish in my undergrad that I would have had a really awesome program like this,” Van den Akker said. “I look forward to continuing to develop this program and to work with these amazing and determined students.”
For more information on Aggie First Scholars and to sign up, visit usu.edu/first-scholars, or email Charita Maeda Van den Akker (firstname.lastname@example.org). To donate to AFS, visit usu.edu/first-scholars/donation.
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