FIRST GENERATION PIONEERS

FIRST GENERATION PIONEERS

PAUL THAYER AND BARB MUSSLEWHITE REFLECT ON 35 YEARS OF AUTHENTIC ACCESS TO CSU
by Kate Hawthorne Jeracki

Colorado State has a national reputation as one of the Best Colleges for First-Generation College Students, according to The Best Colleges organization.

We sat down with two of the architects of this success: Paul Thayer, assistant vice president for student success, and Barb Musslewhite, director of Opportunity Scholars Programs at the Center for Advising and Student Achievement in the Center for Advising and Student Achievement, before they retired this summer. They shared their thoughts on how authentic access to a CSU education has changed the lives not only of first-generation students, but also the lives of their families – and made the University a better place for all students.

BARB: What exists now is so different than when I was a first-generation student at CSU in 1977. There were no programs that said if you are a first-generation student, we can help you.

Paul, you and others who created the First Generation Award program in 1983 recognized that serving students who were first-generation, meaning that neither parent had completed a bachelor’s degree, was in their best interest as well as in the best interest of the University and society. When you stepped into the retention role and I took over the First Generation Award program in 1997, I realized there was so much more we could do for those students. We could tell them, yes, you have the capacity, you have the toolbox, because you have been admitted to the University, you just don’t have all the tools. And we can help you figure out what other tools you need.

Support First Generation Students

Barb Musslewhite First Generation Scholarship – The First Generation Alumni Scholarship Award has been fittingly renamed to honor Barb Musslewhite. Those who would like to recognize her tremendous work may donate to expand upon it and support the amazing students of all ages and walks of life who are striving to complete their degree, when their parents never had that privilege. Interested donors may donate online or by contacting Marilyn Bistline via email or phone (970) 491-4030.

PAUL: CSU was the first school in the nation to create a First Generation Award. Of all the issues important to our society – affordable housing, employment issues – I think education is the most hopeful.

When I came to work at the University in 1979, we didn’t call it “first-generation” – as far as I know, the term was invented by the (federal) Education Amendments of 1980, which some of us at CSU helped draft. We started to think about which students would benefit most from a college degree but had some of the greatest challenges: It’s students with fewer financial means, and it’s also the students who would be the first generation in their families to earn a degree. That characteristic crosses many lines – race and ethnicity, gender – but there are many similar challenges. It describes an experience, not differences in ability, but a set of challenges that affect a student’s likelihood to succeed.

In addition to wanting to address the disparities between lower- and higher-income students with the First Generation Award, we wanted to reframe the narrative about what it means to be a first-generation student. We wanted to think about it as an asset instead of a deficit, see it as a source of pride – the students are pioneers, paving the way for their brothers and sisters and others in their community.

 B: When I talk with students and their families, I give them the message that when you succeed as an educated person you give back to everybody. We often use the village concept – we have an amazing village of people, including faculty and staff, some of whom are first-generation college graduates themselves – a network of people who care and will help them connect the dots for their success.

The financial part is important. The First Generation Award is a small scholarship they can apply for, and it is very competitive. But there are other challenges as well. Many of our students need to work, or are already parents themselves, so working and moving forward academically is a challenge. Many of our students come from close-knit families, and if something happens at home, they feel the pull to go back and help. It can take their focus off the academics.

P: And there’s the irony that because first-generation students are used to being strong and independent and answering things for themselves, they are reluctant to ask advisers for help until it’s too late. In this environment, being able to ask for help is something we expect from all students.

B: So often, families know that certain fields, such as engineering, can make good money, so students come in not knowing enough about other career options that might be a better fit. If they are struggling, we ask them if they have ever been allowed the chance to dream, to know what else might be out there. Others know exactly what they want and are getting it done.

Again this year, 25 percent of our incoming class is first-generation, and there is such a range of diversity within that population – it’s impossible to assume or stereotype.

P: When it comes to programs on campus with a lasting impact, I go back to the TRIO programs that first used first-generation status in eligibility for services. Then the First Generation Award program. And since 1984, we have been able to connect that with our land-grant mission of service, helping the institution know how we can serve first-generation students well and be aware of all the assets first-generation students bring to CSU. We were the first university in the state to begin gathering data to understand the numbers and the outcomes for first-generation students, so we could recognize the gaps and ameliorate them.

Then we enlisted our first-generation faculty in thinking about ways they can help first-generation students succeed.

B: We also have champions in the colleges within the University, some of them first-generation graduates themselves. They have reached out to us to help identify students in their departments and then created events, such as mentoring programs or picnics or networking dinners with first-generation faculty and staff. Across our village, we are seeing great energy around how to reach out to students, in a way that is respectful, to ask what they want, what they need – What else can we do to help you? – rather than assuming we know. There’s a lot going on that is based on access and what we are doing to help students be successful.

P: CSU has achieved distinction with its authentic commitment to access, not just ‘Can we get students here,’ but ‘Can we get students an education, a CSU degree, and all that stands for?’ That starts in the earliest grades to communicate about the importance of education and seeing that it is a real possibility for them. That’s part of our outreach mission. And our Office of Financial Aid is one of the best in thinking about all the ways we can use our scarce financial resources in support of students. But money is not enough. All the things we have put in place – the Community for Excellence, the Key Communities and other learning communities on campus, the learning programs at TILT, the Academic Advancement Center – assure that students can engage fully in the learning experience.

I will forever be proud that CSU was the first institution that made this kind of commitment, the first to make a long-term commitment to student success, and that really has become a campus that is willing to make service to first-generation students one of its trademarks.

B: CSU knows that every student matters, and we have a commitment to every individual student, and that is also something that I am very proud of.

HOW COLORADO STATE BECAME THE SCHOOL OF CHOICE FOR THE STATE’S FIRST-GENERATION STUDENTS

Once the U.S. Department of Education created the TRIO programs in the late 1970s – to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds – Colorado State University staff and administrators realized that students from families where neither parent had completed a bachelor’s were at a definite disadvantage in earning a degree. They worked to include first-generation language in the federal Higher Education Act of 1980, and convinced the State Board of Agriculture (which oversaw CSU at the time) to establish the First Generation Scholarship Award in 1983 – the first such program in the nation.

The first recipients of the First Generation Scholarship Award were recognized the following year, and FGAs have been awarded annually ever since.

In 2006, the focus expanded to helping first-generation students persist to complete their degrees. CSU reached out not only to high schoolers to help them prepare for college through the statewide Alliance Partnership but also to faculty members who had been first-generation students themselves. Colleges hosted luncheons for first-gen faculty in 2010; first-gen faculty were invited to participate in the FGA dinner in 2011; and they were showcased in a series of I’m First videos.

After the Registrar’s Office added a First- Generation Student note to student records in 2010, colleges began reaching out to students to link them with first-generation faculty and other networking opportunities. The Community for Excellence began coordinating resources available for students receiving select financial awards, including FGA.

In 2013, CSU received its first listing in The Best Colleges as the best in the nation for first-generation college students. It has been included every year since.

By Spring 2016, all eight colleges were asking first-generation graduates to stand and be recognized at Commencement for their accomplishments. Community for Excellence became a fully funded center within the University.

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