IPFW Expanding Being First! Program to Help First-Generation Students

Being FirstThe Being First! program at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) is expanding to continue to strengthen the success of first-generation students on campus.

Faculty and staff continually research and implement new ways of helping first-generation students succeed in college. That’s because more than half of the students who come to IPFW are the first members of their immediate families to go to college for a four-year degree. Unfortunately, statistics show that the unique challenges they face lead to lower retention and graduation rates in this group.

Many of these first-generation students feel isolated, fear they aren’t smart enough to be in college, are confused by the financial aid system, unsure of what professors expect from them, and don’t know what resources are available to them. A lot of these students also lack support at home because family and friends don’t understand the challenges college presents. As a result, first-generation students are more likely to drop out of college in their first year.

In 2014, the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs submitted a grant proposal to the Indiana University Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council to establish a new program to help these first-generation students.

The grant of $7,500 was awarded, and through trial and error, the Being First! program was created.

“Being First grew out of my experience working with non-traditional students, who were obviously smart, capable, and disciplined,” said Julie Creek, director of the office of diversity and multicultural affairs. “But I would watch them sit in a chair in my office, and in the space of 10 minutes, talk themselves out of coming back to school because they thought they weren’t college material, couldn’t do math, hated to write, on and on.”

Creek says she immediately hired two student coordinators. It wasn’t an accident that they were both first-generation students who had made it through their first two years of college. Creek also reached out to first-generation faculty and staff to get help. Together, they developed a set of workshops to address challenges that first-generation students face.

Michael Kanedy (junior, general studies) is grateful for the program. “Being First has given me the courage I needed to continue my education and overcome all the challenges that come with being a first-generation student.”

Since 2014, the program has grown to include peer academic consulting and tutoring, a faculty and staff outreach initiative, social events, and a partnership with the IPFW Honors Center to expose these students to the Honors Program.

It hasn’t been easy. “Though we’ve made some mistakes and charged down a few blind alleys, our program and our partnership opportunities have continued to grow and flourish,” said Creek. “Our participating student database contains almost 400 names.”

Lorenzo Catalan (junior, biology) said being part of the program helps him feel like he belongs. “Being First is an amazing group. I feel more connected to IPFW because of them. Being First has helped me realize that I am not alone in being a first-generation college student because there are also professors who identify the same way. Understanding that there are faculty as well as peers who also identify as a first-generation student aids me in my ability to approach them. I have also learned so much about studying from the Being First workshops, which have helped my academic performance. I love the community Being First has created for me.”

At the end of 2016, Creek was asked by the Indiana University Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council to write a letter about her grant experience with them. The group responded by inviting Creek to submit another grant proposal for the 2017 grant cycle.

Creek’s proposal involved expanding Being First! by developing a program to bring families of first-generation students to campus, and a program to help faculty and staff members who are not first-generation communicate more effectively with first-generation students.

As part of her presentation, Creek said, “As we continue to grow and fine-tune our existing programming, grant support from the Women’s Philanthropy Council would help us expand our reach by developing programs and activities in collaboration with our staff and faculty partners that bring families of first-generation students to campus, to help them better understand college life, and the challenges their students face. At the same time, we will collaborate with our faculty/staff partners to help those who are not first-generation understand and respond more effectively to their first-generation students.”

In June, the Being First! program was awarded a $3,750 grant to develop the outreach programs for parents of first-generation students, and for non-first-generation faculty.

Staff members will now begin to create workshops, which they will make available online for those who can’t attend. They also plan to work with the university’s Institutional Research and Analysis office to develop tools to measure the effectiveness of the new programs.

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