Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Intentionality is Key in First-generation Student Success

Dr. Montserrat Fuentes

As a first-generation college graduate and the first-ever female, Hispanic president of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, I deeply understand the value of higher education for all. Education is a human right regardless of one’s background, and access and support should be readily available to those in need. We are fully committed to first-generation students, but commitment is just the start. Consistent and strong intentionality in academic, psychosocial, and financial support is key to first-generation students successfully completing college.

Dr. Montserrat FuentesDr. Montserrat FuentesWe have proudly and intentionally delivered the longest continuous College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) for over 50 years at St. Edward’s University following the introduction by President Johnson in 1972. This first-generation program is possible at our university through generous donor support, most notably by Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin. The program has assisted more than 2,800 St. Edward’s students who bring their passions, talents, and ambitions to the hilltop. These students enrich our campus tremendously, and the CAMP program changes their lives and greatly impacts their families.

In addition to our CAMP scholars, the number of first-generation students at St. Edward’s has been growing every year, and they are successfully pursuing their education with generous and collaborative partnerships including the Hector and Gloria López Foundation, Breakthrough Central Texas, and Con Mi MADRE. Since 2020, our first-generation retention rate has increased by 7.2% with six-year graduation rates for the first-generation students higher than the overall six-year graduation rates in Texas and public four-year institutions for all students. But we are not stopping our pursuit of even higher graduation rates for our first-generation students.

These students face unique challenges that extend beyond academics as they navigate cultural, financial and social hurdles. Our responsibility as educators and administrators is to intentionally address their needs through a highly personalized holistic education plan tailored to their interests and goals. This includes welcoming and ongoing support for students with a success team dedicated to financial, academic and psychosocial support to achieve a bachelor’s degree. For example, we have developed an integrated framework to decrease student debt and increase access to outside scholarships.

In addition to the success team, we provide first-generation programming for students and their families during orientation to ease the transition to college. Our wrap-around support includes monthly events, a first-year seminar, customized internship programs, and intentionally celebrating the first-gen identity. For many, the hilltop is their “segunda casa” or second home with the St. Edward’s “familia” or family of students, faculty, staff, and leadership.

At St. Edward’s, we have shown that targeted, intentional support for first-generation students improves postsecondary outcomes. Our Fall 2022 first-gen, first-year retention rate (81.5%) outpaced their non-first-gen peers (78.6%). While it’s no surprise that these students show immense drive, their energy and passion are inspiring. For example, one of our students was recently awarded the prestigious McNair Scholarship and will be going abroad during the summer to study ‘Superstar Cities’ and apply her learning to the Austin area upon her return. Strategic, intentional and focused support can change lives, as seen by the many alumni success stories who make significant contributions to their local and global communities.

While much progress has been made overcoming these barriers to higher education, the work is far from over. University leaders, faculty, staff, donors, and community partners must continue to advocate, support and deliver resources, programs, and guidance for first-generation students. Carefully identifying needs and thoroughly supporting these remarkable, underrepresented students ensures they have the opportunities they deserve. Our universities and our communities are strengthened when we ensure all students have access and educational opportunities.

Dr. Montserrat Fuentes is president of St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.

The trusted source for all job seekers
We have an extensive variety of listings for both academic and non-academic positions at postsecondary institutions.
Read More
The trusted source for all job seekers