Grant enables Jefferson to develop soft landing for first-gen students

By Luanne Williams

Antonio Jefferson holds a doctorate in education. But Wingate’s assistant vice president for multicultural programming and diversity, equity and inclusion still remembers the struggles he faced two decades ago as the first in his family to attend college: the confusion about how to navigate college, how to handle social situations, how to connect with faculty.

Antonio Jefferson

“Students are still having some of the same challenges in 2021 that I was having in 2001,” Jefferson says. “Being the first in your family to attend college can be challenging. Not being fully aware of campus resources can lead to a lack of belonging, difficulties connecting socially or academic challenges.”

He also remembers the summer bridge program at Eastern Connecticut State University that helped him succeed. And with the help of academic and residence-life leaders and a $7,000 grant from the Board of Visitors, Jefferson hopes to build an even stronger yearlong bridge program for first-generation students at Wingate, where roughly 42 percent of incoming students last fall were the first in their family to attend college.

Fifty students who make up the inaugural First-Generation Orientation cohort will be welcomed to campus two days before their first-year peers so they can meet faculty and staff, learn their way around campus and get help from rising-senior mentors. They’ll be shown where their classes are and how to find the dining hall, can ask questions at a panel discussion featuring a variety of staff members, will be recognized at a luncheon and will later unwind with a game night at Unity House Multicultural Center.

On their second day, first-gen students will take part in team-building activities and be shuttled to WalMart and Target to pick up any last-minute items they need in their residence halls.

But the program will go well beyond helping them settle in. Monthly workshops are planned to help with study habits, time management and more. More than 30 of the students will be part of a living/learning community housed together at Northeast Residence Hall. They will all be in the same Gateway 101 class, and Residence Life will lead ongoing activities for the group. Jefferson will host a monthly check-in with a meal to hear directly from participants about how they’re faring or what additional support they may need, and students’ mentors will keep close tabs on them.

“Their mentors will be checking in with them weekly, eating lunch with them some days, sending them text messages to check in,” Jefferson says.

Beyond the planned programming, which will continue through the spring of 2022, Jefferson expects first-gen students to benefit greatly from simply being together.

“Being a first-generation college student is so confusing, and it’s really overwhelming, because my parents and I don’t know what to expect,” says incoming freshman Savannah Phillips. “I feel like being surrounded by other first-gen students will make me feel more secure, knowing that I will be part of a program that is specifically designed to help me through that first year when I am learning the ropes, and being surrounded by other students who are going through the same exact thing I am going through.”

Like others tapped for the program, Phillips had to submit a short video of herself talking about why she wanted to participate. A resident of Kershaw, South Carolina, she plans to major in communication with an emphasis in journalism.

Douglas Cortez Recinos, a native of El Salvador who will study biology with the goal of becoming a physician assistant, says he looks forward to making new friends and making good grades from day one.

“I am really excited but also really nervous,” he says. “The reason I want to get into the program is I remember four years ago when I first got here and started high school, it was really hard for me to adapt. I don’t want to have the same experience in college.”

Although the full-fledged living/learning community will be limited to roughly three dozen students, other first-gen students can take part in the workshops and check-in events. Jefferson hopes the experience will inspire many to become mentors in future years, so they can share their experience with the program’s next cohort. He and other organizers are creating surveys and other metrics to help measure the success of the initiative, which he hopes will yield benefits for years to come.

“Students enter Wingate with different experiences and perspectives and different understandings of higher education,” Jefferson says. “It’s important that we meet them where they are so that we can support them and create a more welcoming experience for all students. That good experience ultimately translates into more connected alumni, who are supportive and who give back. From Orientation to graduation, we need to be holistic in our support for our students.”

Jefferson’s plan for First Generation Orientation was one of eight requests granted by Wingate’s Board of Visitors, which awarded a total of $50,252 this spring.

July 19, 2021