Edinboro unveils 'I'm First!' project

Category:  News
Thursday, February 21st, 2019 at 11:29 AM

“Neither of my parents graduated from college, so when I got to campus as a freshman, I’ll admit I was a little overwhelmed,” said former United States First Lady, Michelle Obama, in a video for the “I’m First!” project.  

“I’m First!” is an initiative that was created by a nonprofit, Maryland-based organization, the Center for Student Opportunity (CSO). Since 2013, the organization has provided online guidance to college-bound students whose family members have not received any post-high-school higher education.  

This program officially came to Edinboro on Friday, Feb. 15, as a group of university faculty and staff gathered — Monica Clem, Julie Chacona, Dr. Kathleen Dailey, Dr. Jim Wertz, Interim Edinboro University President Michael Hannan and more — to discuss what bringing the “I’m First!” initiative to EU would look like and where the school stands in its process to do so.  

At the start of the meeting, meeting leader and the executive director of career development and experiential learning, Monica Clem, defined what a first-generation student is. “First generation [student], meaning neither of your primary caretakers has a post-secondary credential.” 

At Edinboro University, about 30 percent of currently enrolled undergraduate students are actually considered first-generation. In addition, in 2011, Edinboro’s graduation rate was only at 43 percent. However, first-generation students at that time graduated at about a 6 percent lower rate than non-first-generation students. With a low graduation rate, and a high total population, first generation students are thus responsible for a sizable portion of dropout rates. 

“The graduation rate gap between first-generation students and non-first-generation students is slightly above 6 percent,” said Clem, on the consecutive years, 2009-2011. 

The newly welcomed program will be aimed at helping first-generation students finish their undergraduate degrees, and in turn aimed at fixing low graduation rates at Edinboro.

Earlier this month, the Edinboro “I’m First!” team sent out a survey to first generation freshman at Edinboro. These surveys were structured to gather qualitative data about the needs, priorities, expectations and experiences of first-year and first-generation students.  

The survey consisted of several open-ended questions, like, “what does being a first-generation student mean to you personally?” And “what are some advantages and disadvantages of being a first-generation student?” Of all the students the survey was sent out to, only 12 responded. For those 12, the most commonly used word in answers was “family.”  

Family was not overlooked by the committee. Besides working with prospective first-generation students and current first-generation students, there will be a resource guide provided to parents who are also navigating a new system.  

The guide will provide parents with information about the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the school year calendar, with an emphasis on important dates (the first day and finals week, among others), and how to get in contact with financial aid to better understand the scholarship and grant processes.  

“This initiative came from a number of places,” said Associate Dean Dr. Jim Wertz. “As a faculty member talking to students, both first-generation and otherwise, but specifically first-generation, you learn that…there is this additional tension sometimes between your family’s expectations and [them] understanding what your obligations and schedule are as a student.”  

As the “I’m First!” program continues to formulate at Edinboro, it will aim to expand the benefits from a source of navigation and counseling provided solely online, to providing scholarships and expanding to in-person counseling to students who meet a set of qualifications. 

This merit and need based scholarship will award students with $8,000 over the course of four years. Students will have to maintain a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA, must be first-generation and be full-time enrolled. A preference will be given to Pennsylvania residents, who, according to the Edinboro fact sheet, make up 82.5 percent of the undergraduate population at Edinboro. 

The money for these scholarships will be coming from donors, pledging to give money to a first-generation student in an undergraduate program of their choosing. The fundraising for this program will begin this spring, with Edinboro’s director of development, Julie Chacona, at the forefront.  

“No longer do donors just call and want to send a check in and say: ‘Do what you want with it.’ Transformational giving is really investing in an organization,” said Chacona. “In the (Pennsylvania) state system, only West Chester and Cal U (California University of Pennsylvania), right now, have very early stages of this type of fundraising initiative. I don’t think they have the team in place that we have yet, so I’m very confident we can move it forward in a way that we will be a model for PASSHE.” 

There is no launch date set for the program, but subcommittees are set to meet on March 1.

“I was a first-generation student,” said Hannan, the interim president. “I think that it is really important for us to make first-generation students feel welcomed and [feel] that they have made a good choice in coming to Edinboro, because [here] they are going to get the support that they need.” 

Anisa Venner-Johnston | edinboro.spectator@gmail.com

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