March 13, 2020

SIU earns national recognition for its commitment to first-generation students

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale is just one of two higher education institutions in Illinois to earn national recognition from the Center for First-generation Student Success.

The university was recently named a First-Gen Forward Campus by the organization, which is an initiative of NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and The Suder Foundation.

SIU an early recipient of the designation

This is the national program’s second year and its designation for SIU reflects the university’s demonstrated “commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes of first-generation college students,” according to the organization.

“We are proud to see how SIU is implementing evidence-based practices, using an institution-wide approach, and breaking down systemic barriers impeding student success,” Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-generation Student Success, said.

Institutions selected for the honor receive professional development and community-building assistance and access to the center’s research and resources.

First Saluki Center focus is first-generation students

SIU launched its First Saluki Center last fall to focus on first-generation students, helping them to overcome the unique challenges they face and succeed. With seed grant funding from the SIU Foundation, the center became a one-stop shop for first-generation students. Students are considered first-generation if neither of their parents or guardians earned a bachelor’s degree. Through the First Saluki Center, students can access the resources, mentorship, peer support and other help needed to reach their goals. 

Nearly 1/3 of the country’s undergraduate students are first-generation, according to EAB, a national education and student success-focused organization. At SIU about 40 percent of the students self-identify as first-generation.

A lack of a support network and resources can often cause students to struggle more in college. A Higher Education Research Institute report indicates that only about half of first-generation students in the United States typically complete college degrees within six years compared to 64% of other students. Reversing that trend is one of the reasons SIU launched First Saluki Center.

Love leads campus-wide effort

Lanel Love, as assistant dean of students, established First Saluki Center in August 2019 and serves as director. Love, a double alumna of SIU is a first-generation student herself and  knows the challenges all too well.

The First Saluki Center is a collaborative, campus-wide effort involving the various academic units and more than 20 other units dedicated to student support. That includes  admissions and financial aid, housing, academic advisement, the  career development center and offices that support veterans, students with disabilities and international and non-traditional students.

Center already taking action

The center has already put several  initiatives in place, including establishing the new First and Proud Living Learning Community in Neely Hall, which will start during the fall 2020 semester.

“The primary focus of the living learning community is to increase visibility around first-generation college identity and assist students with navigating university life,” Love said.

Community members will get involved in leadership development, resiliency training, resume building and career exploration.  Love said two of the primary goals are helping assure that the “First and Proud” students can identify and utilize campus resources that will aid in their pursuit of success, and that it will help them develop connections with faculty, staff and other first-generation students.

Plans also call for distributing “first-gen” placards to faculty and staff for students to quickly know that they too, were first-generation college students. “‘I’m first-gen, come talk to me,’ is the message,” that Love believes is an important component in showing students that they can also achieve success.

In addition, SIU will have a first-generation college celebration day each year and at commencement, first-generation graduates will wear special graduation stoles honoring each of them as the first  in their family to earn a degree.

Benefits of First-Gen Forward

SIU is one of 77 institutions across the country chosen for the 2020-21 First-Gen Forward designation. As a result, SIU faculty and staff representatives will attend a First-gen Forward Workshop in June and engage with the Center for First-Generation Student Success in goal-setting exercises and monthly support calls. They will also network with other first-gen institutions.

For more information about SIU’s First Saluki Center, visit the website or call 618/453-6870.