July 06, 2010

First-generation students focus of $1 million grant

by Tom Woolf

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A private foundation is investing in Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s efforts to improve the graduation rate of first-generation students.

A longstanding commitment to first-generation students -- those whose parents did not attend college -- was one of the reasons The Suder Foundation, of Plano, Texas, selected the University for the five-year, $1 million program. Along with SIUC, the foundation awarded a grant to the University of Alabama. SIUC and Alabama competed with 32 other universities.

Nearly 43 percent of SIUC’s 2009 first-time entering freshmen were first-generation students.

“We appreciate The Suder Foundation’s confidence in our University and we are excited about what this program will mean for our students,” Chancellor Rita Cheng said. “We provide support systems and additional tools to help our first-year students make a successful transition to the University, because success in that first year is key to students reaching their educational goals. But first-generation students can face additional challenges, and this program will enhance our efforts at helping them succeed throughout their careers here.”

According to The Suder Foundation, first-generation students, once enrolled in a university, may face a variety of challenges, including: limited access to information about the college experience, either firsthand or from relatives; limited knowledge of time management, college finances, budget management, and the bureaucratic operations of higher education; doubts about their academic and motivational abilities, causing them to think they are “not college material”; and difficulty balancing family, work and school responsibilities.

The foundation is the creation of Eric Suder, founder and chief executive officer of ESI, based in Plano. As a result of the company’s success with significance philosophy, he has started or become involved with several philanthropic programs, including the ESI Humanitarian Relief Fund. That project initially was a response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but has grown into a more general effort to assist victims of disasters ranging from Hurricane Katrina to earthquakes in Asia.

Suder also assists students with financial need through endowments to the University of Texas and his alma mater, West Virginia University.

His foundation’s nationwide effort to help first-generation college students began last year, with the University of Utah and the University of Kentucky securing the inaugural grants. The Suder Foundation’s program focuses on four key areas for first-generation students: financial, academic, personal development and social integration.

"Our First Scholars program goals align well with initiatives in place at SIUC,” Suder said. “We were excited by the planning team's level of energy and enthusiasm about what we are trying to accomplish through our data-driven approach to assisting first-generation students graduate from college."

During this first year of the “First Scholars Program,” SIUC is receiving $60,000 for planning. The University will hire a planning coordinator to work with a core planning team to map out the program. According to the timeline submitted as part of the grant application, selection of a permanent First Scholars director is set for February 2011, with the individual beginning his or her duties that May.

The Suder Foundation will fund 20 scholarships at $5,000 each beginning in fall 2011, and will fund 20 additional scholarships at the same level in each of the succeeding three years. Students from Illinois, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee will be eligible for the scholarships. Financial need and demonstrated academic ability as shown by ACT and/or SAT scores and high school GPA will be among the scholarship criteria.

The scholarship will be renewable for three years as long as the First Scholar maintains at least a 2.5 GPA and meets other criteria established by The Suder Foundation. After the fourth year of the program, the University will be responsible for securing necessary funding to maintain scholarship renewals for existing students and to award scholarships to new groups of students.

One of The Suder Foundation’s requirements of scholarship recipients is “Pay-It-Forward.” In addition to volunteering in campus and community organizations, First Scholar upperclassmen can serve as mentors for incoming participants. In addition, the returning participants can tutor other First Scholars. At SIUC, key scholarship recipients, such as Presidential Scholars, will mentor first-year participants in the First Scholars program.

Saluki First Year will administer the First Scholars Program. SIUC introduced Saluki First Year last fall as a comprehensive approach designed to smooth the transition to the University for all first-year students. Mark Amos, associate professor of English and Academic Affairs director of Saluki First Year, was the principal investigator on the application to The Suder Foundation.

Noting that serving first-generation students is “part of our institutional DNA,” Amos said the First Scholars Program will have a number of benefits.

“This will allow us to bring in students who otherwise may not have been able to attend for financial reasons, or who could come with other kinds of financial assistance but now we’ll be able to offer more scholarship money,” he said. “With First Scholars, we will be using best practices on a small scale and we then can put them in place for all of our first-generation students. And since part of the intent of these kinds of programs is to generate best practices on a larger scale, this will allow us to publicize more widely what we are doing and establish SIUC as a model for meeting the needs of first-generation students.”

Amos and Julie Payne Kirchmeier, director of University Housing and Student Affairs director of Saluki First Year, both emphasized that the success in securing the Suder Foundation grant reflects a collaborative effort among academics, Student Affairs and the SIU Foundation.

“In the end, it’s our students who matter,” said Payne Kirchmeier, the co-principal investigator on the grant application. “When we collaborate like this as an institution, it’s the students who win, and when that happens, our institution and community become stronger.”

Jill Gobert, director of corporate and foundation relations for the SIU Foundation, and Charles Leonard, visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, were part of the core team that responded to The Suder Foundation grant proposal and will assist in its implementation.

Rickey N. McCurry, vice chancellor for institutional advancement and chief executive officer of the SIU Foundation, applauded the collaborative effort.

“Foundation staff and University community members worked in harmony to make this possible,” he said. “Their cooperation and hard work has resulted in a partnership with The Suder Foundation that will have a positive impact on SIUC students. This effort really coincides with the SIU Foundation’s focus of ‘Investing in Saluki Futures.’”

To learn more about The Suder Foundation, visit http://www.suderfoundation.org/