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Opening doors for the aspirational

Jefferson has made a career of helping students much like himself

When Dr. Antonio Jefferson ’20 (Ed.D.) talks to an incoming Wingate student about joining the Bulldog First-Gen Program, he speaks from experience.

After spending his formative years in rural Bertie County, North Carolina, Jefferson went to middle and high school in Middletown, Connecticut. In the housing project where he lived, there was plenty of talk about the University of Connecticut’s high-achieving basketball teams. But higher education as an attainable goal? Not a lot.

“My aunt went to college, but that was years ago,” Jefferson says. “Other than that, I didn’t know anyone who went to college. I believe that out of everyone that I hung around, only two of us went to college.”

Jefferson probably would have “done a 9-to-5” after high school had Upward Bound not intervened. One of the federally funded TRIO programs, Upward Bound helps students who have academic potential but have no history of college in their families to navigate the process of preparing for, applying to and making it through college.

Jefferson wound up at Eastern Connecticut State University, and his sister and brother went on to earn college degrees as well. The difference is, Jefferson never really left college.

Now the assistant vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Wingate University, Jefferson worked with Dean of Campus Life Mick Reynolds to found the Bulldog First-Gen Program last year, giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds a little extra guidance and support as they make the transition into higher education. They designed the program to provide a helping hand similar to the one that held the higher-ed door open for Jefferson two decades ago.

Students in the program move into their residence halls early for a pre-orientation program that helps them settle in before the mad rush of Move-in Day. Throughout the year, they have access to enrichment workshops that provide hints and tricks for handling the academic rigors of college. They are also paired with a peer mentor, who helps them navigate a first-year experience that can be especially disorienting for students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Antonio Jefferson in his office

“It can be tough, especially now,” Jefferson says. “When I was going to college, financial aid was easy, buying books was easy. But now, with so much other stuff thrown at them, it can be super-confusing.”

By all accounts, the program has been a big success. The collective first-semester grade-point average of the 44 freshmen who entered the program last summer was 2.83, which was higher than for all first-time freshmen combined. The majority of them are living together in a “living-learning community” in Northeast residence hall, providing support for each other in addition to the support they’re gaining from the program.

The biggest manifestation of the program’s value can be seen in the desire of this year’s freshmen to pay it forward. “The majority of them are interested in being mentors,” he says, “so they’ll be helping the next cohort coming in.”

Much like Jefferson himself is doing as a career.

Onward and upward

Decades later, Jefferson can still conjure up in his memory the smell of his grandfather’s chicken houses. He remembers digging potatoes, picking beans and tending to the hogs.

“I would see the pig from the time it was alive until it turned into sausage,” he says.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jefferson’s family scratched out a living in Bertie County  the way you do in a very rural area. His dad drove a truck for Perdue Farms. His mother was a dietary aid at a hospital, preparing meals and delivering them to patients. His grandmother would get up early on Saturday and leave for Nags Head, about an hour away, to clean beach houses before the next guests checked in. “They looked at it as cleaning houses for white people,” Jefferson says.

In search of better job prospects, the family moved north, joining other family members who had already made the move. There, they swapped the loamy farmland of Bertie for the asphalt of urban Connecticut. His new town had twice the population of the entire county of Bertie.

Initially, Jefferson didn’t think much about his future beyond the next month. But in eighth grade, he was invited to the school auditorium for a presentation about Upward Bound. “They basically told us about what the program was,” he says. “‘You’ve been selected because you’re first-generation, your parents’ income is at this level. If you want to be in it, this is what you have to do.’”

It quickly dawned on young Antonio that he might actually be the first in his family to go to college. “My parents knew what it was about,” he says. “They knew that it was going to make me successful. Parents always want better than what they had for their kids.”

In Upward Bound, he met with an advisor throughout the school year to make sure he was keeping his grades up, to prep for college admissions tests and to learn what college was all about. During a six-week summer program he took classes at Wesleyan University and visited other colleges in the state.

Once Jefferson had decided on Eastern Connecticut State University, he attended a six-week summer bridge program prior to his freshman year that provided a soft landing in a different world. “They helped build our classes,” he says. “They helped set us up for success as far as what you need to graduate, how many credits you need. That shaped me and other first-gen students and the other students who were coming from the same background, same challenges, same barriers as me.”

There’s nothing more important than being able to sit down with someone and say, ‘I understand you. I’ve been in your shoes.'

Jefferson majored in communication and went on to get a master’s in higher education administration before plunging into the world of higher ed. While getting his doctorate he learned that Wingate was looking for someone to lead its Lyceum and multicultural programming, a role that was right in Jefferson’s wheelhouse. He’d spent six years as the director of the multicultural center at Connecticut College before becoming a support advisor for students in the federal TRIO programs at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, N.C., and he was passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion on college campuses.

At Wingate, Jefferson organized the Lyceum schedule around months – Black History Month, Native American Heritage Month, etc. – and shifted the preferred format to moderated Q&A. “I think that’s a better investment, when students feel like they’re talking to the speaker as well, vs. coming and hearing a speech and leaving,” he says. He has brought in speakers such as Cornel West, Kevin Richardson (of the exonerated Central Park 5) and Cheryl Brown-Henderson (daughter of the lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education), always making sure to cover timely topics.

In his new role, Jefferson still works closely with the new Lyceum director, but he is turning his attention to Wingate’s focus on DEI and the campuswide programs and learning opportunities associated with it. The Bulldog First-Gen Program is a fundamental part of that focus. Jefferson says his background informs his new position “100 percent.” While in college, he served as a mentor to rising freshmen in the summer bridge program, and it made him feel good to be able to guide students from a background similar to his as they entered the overwhelming world of college. Having those students continue to seek his guidance during the school year – “Antonio, can you help me with this?” “Antonio, I have a question.” “Antonio, can you talk to my folks about this?” – whetted his appetite for working in higher education. Now he gets to use that lived experience to guide the next generation of Antonio Jeffersons as they embark on a life-changing experience of their own.

“There’s nothing more important than being able to sit down with someone and say, ‘I understand you. This is why: I’ve been in your shoes,’” he says.

Jefferson is such a believer in programs such as Bulldog First-Gen that he volunteers with local Upward Bound programs. He remembers how much the program helped him to boil down the big concept of “college” into something manageable, and it makes him feel good to be able to do likewise for first-year students at Wingate.

His next goal is to receive a grant to extend Bulldog First-Gen to all class years, so students can continue to receive the support that keeps them on track for a degree. He’d even like to give students who go through the program special recognition at graduation, perhaps with an identifying cord to wear with their cap and gown.

“To recognize that, like where I was in eighth grade, knowing nothing about college, for folks to get to this point, to graduate, is important,” he says.

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