‘You First’ program hopes to provide community, guidance for first-generation students

Anya Sczerzenie, Contributing Writer 

Starting university can be hard for anyone, but it can be especially difficult if you’re the first in your family to go to college. 

First-generation college students have lower retention and graduation rates, both at VCU and nationwide. This is a gap that VCU’s first-generation student program, You First, hopes to close. 

“It’s student-led and student-driven, and it has grown dramatically,” said Daphne Rankin, head of the Division for Strategic Enrollment Management, which sponsors You First. 

You First started in 2017. Rankin said it stemmed from Altria Scholars, a program for first-generation engineering and business students that began in 2016. Many of the programs in You First are derived from the Altria Scholars program.

“It sprang from a statement from a student. One of those students made the comment that they wish they had known others who were first-generation during their first year,” Rankin said. “So we realized that with a third of our class being first-gen students, we had to do more to help them build a community.”

First-generation college students are defined by You First’s webpage as those whose legal guardians have not earned a bachelor’s degree, although statistics from the U.S. Department of Education define them as people whose parents have never enrolled in college. 

Thirty-two percent of the 2019-2020 freshman class at VCU was made up of first-generation students, according to VCU News. University data from 2016 shows the retention rate for first-generation students is 78%, compared to 86% for non first-generation students. 

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that first generation students often lag behind their peers whose parents went to college. They are more likely to drop out of college and not finish their degrees. 

You First hosts a five-week Summer Scholars program. Rising first-year students take two regular three-credit classes, live on campus and participate in academic workshops. They also participate in activities like white water rafting and visits to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“Because the students are more connected to the university, even if they do leave the university, they tend to stay longer,” Rankin said. 

Freshman art foundation student Joshua Staples said You First helped him feel less stressed about attending university in the city.

“I was nervous about city life, paying for college, and stuff like that,” Staples said. “In the program, we were taking classes every day, and we were encouraged to go exploring around the campus. The program had many small talks about paying for college and focusing on your mental health.”

Staples said the Summer Scholars program helped him learn about college while having a lot of fun.

“It was a great time, volunteering and getting an understanding of how university life works,” Staples said. “We also did small field trips in Richmond like the art museum, Hollywood Cemetery and the river.”

You First hosts “First Tuesday” sessions on the first Tuesday of every month, which are based around topics such as mental health and relationships. They also have a mentoring program for first-generation students, started by Elizabeth Bambacus, who is the student engagement and summer studies administrator for You First. 

Their race and gender demographics are very similar to the demographics of the school as a whole, according to Rankin. However, a higher percentage of first-gen students are eligible for Pell Grants.

In November, Cabell Library hosted an art exhibit featuring the peer mentors from the You First program. The exhibit included photographs of the mentors with speech bubbles above their heads containing the “words of wisdom” they’d give to new students. It was put up in honor of the National First-Generation College Celebration on Nov. 8.

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