First-Generation Freshmen Get a Residence of Their Own

David Stephenson for The Chronicle

Getting ready for finals: First-generation college students at the U. of Kentucky get tips on studying at a seminar in their residence hall, where they can live together and attend special programs on adjusting to college.
December 04, 2011

When Brittany Boreing heard she had received a special scholarship for students who are the first in their families to attend college, she cried. The extra $5,000 a year would be just enough for her to fulfill a dream she had had since childhood: attending the University of Kentucky.

But once her financial problems were solved, Ms. Boreing had other fears. "I didn't know how well I'd be able to handle college work," she says. "And I was always the quiet kid in high school, so I was really worried I wouldn't have friends here."

That's when Matthew Deffendall, director of the university's First Scholars program, offered a possible solution: She could apply to live in a new residence hall created specifically for first-generation freshmen. The living-learning community would be offering on-site tutoring, weekly seminars about adjusting to college life, and special field trips to help students get to know one another.

Ms. Boreing decided to give it a try, and this fall she became one of 42 such freshmen to move into the experimental residence hall. Three months later, she is overflowing with enthusiasm for her newfound community. "I love it. I've met so many people here," she explains. Living in a place where she can focus on her studies has also been a relief. "It's mostly having everybody together so we can help each other with our homework."

With only 40 percent of first-generation students graduating from Kentucky within six years, compared with 61 percent of their peers, administrators wanted to do more to help the first-generation students "feel like they can succeed," says Todd C. Allen, hall director of the new living-learning community. Nearly a quarter of freshmen arriving at the University of Kentucky each year have parents with no formal education beyond high school, and the gap in the students' graduation rates mimics data from national studies, which have historically found first-generation students to be at a disadvantage when it comes to college completion.

The proportion of first-generation students at American colleges has actually been declining since the 1970s, as higher education has become more accessible, according to a 2007 study from the University of California at Los Angeles. But a wave of research over the past decade has prompted many colleges to start offering extra support, like scholarships, tutoring, and informational sessions, to try to improve graduation rates. As one of five universities participating in the Suder Foundation's First Scholars program, which provides scholarships and mentoring, Kentucky was already a leader in supporting first-generation students; but faculty and staff believed the university could take it one step further.

Enviable Extras

After a year of planning, the first floor of Kentucky's three-story Blanding III dormitory is now one of the most envied living spaces on campus. Students have access to a freshly renovated basement with a pool table, kitchen, new furniture, and panoramic artwork, which has changed the culture of the building, says Mr. Deffendall. The students who moved in this fall "truly enjoy the space," he says. "It's bright. It's fresh. It's student-friendly. I think they enjoy it even more once they've seen what other students' spaces look like."

But more important than the building itself are the services offered to the freshmen living there. First-generation students often lack family or friends to turn to for college advice, say Kentucky's administrators, and without those role models, it's easy for them to feel overwhelmed or homesick. As a response, the university requires all students in the new residence hall to enroll during their first semester in UK 101, a course designed to help freshmen make the transition to university life.

"I was a little unsure about having to take UK 101 as a requirement," remembers Alyssa Elswick, a resident in the hall who plans to become a doctor someday. "I didn't know if it would be an efficient use of my time." But she says the course has genuinely helped her learn about campus programs, get oriented at the university, and form connections with students much like herself. "Just working together with people who are trying to achieve the same things you are helps so much," she says.

Students also gather every two weeks in the renovated basement for "Topic Tuesday," where they listen to guest speakers discuss topics like homesickness, sexual health, and nutrition. One Tuesday this fall, a few students shared stories about people who had discouraged them from coming to college, remembers Kelli E. Hutchens, coordinator for the living-learning community. "They heard from people in their hometowns that they would hate it, and it would be impossible," she says. "But they said now that they're here, they love it, and attributed it largely to the living-learning community and how it has brought them together."

There are also study sessions, counseling, and volunteering opportunities, where students have been encouraged to "pay it forward" by helping out at places like the Kentucky Children's Hospital. When students get involved, they are rewarded with field trips such as a visit to the local horse track or a zip-line tour through the Red River Gorge.

"Families who have not been to college don't know how to assist their sons and daughters as much as they would like," says David Pollick, a senior adviser at the Council of Independent Colleges, who was a first-generation student himself. "You just come without the same set of tools."

'Something to Be Celebrated'

"We try very hard not to say, 'You're first generation, so you're probably not going to do well,'" explains Mr. Deffendall. He prefers for students to think about the hall as an opportunity to be with people of a similar background who are facing the same challenges. "It's something to be celebrated," he says. "We try to turn it around so that it's more of a badge of honor than a stigma."

Removing students from the mainstream and placing them together in a residence hall could make them feel isolated or self-conscious if it's not handled properly, cautions Mr. Pollick, who also oversees an awards program that recognizes institutions that have helped their first-generation students. "If there's a big bright spotlight over the door that says 'First Generation,' that would be disastrous," he says. Still, he believes that using a living-learning community could be advantageous.

Similar communities exist at a handful of other colleges, such as the University of Cincinnati and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. But with plans to house 100 students next year, expanding onto the second and third floors of the building, the University of Kentucky's may soon be the largest of its kind.

"It was a wonderful idea," says Candace McQueen, another freshman living in the hall, who comes from a small town in eastern Kentucky. "Everybody in the dorm knows everybody else, and we all hang out together. I've been in other residence halls, and they hardly know anybody who comes in the door."

Having close friends on campus and feeling supported increases students' self-confidence, according to Alan Seidman, a professor of education at Walden University. In his book, College Student Retention, he writes that being socially connected can also help students stay enrolled.

Something that has meant a lot to Ms. Elswick is how much Kentucky's faculty and staff genuinely seem to care about her as an individual. "Everyone has expressed an interest about who I am and what I want to do with my life. Never have I felt that I didn't matter in some way, and the first-generation community has definitely helped with that," she says. "I'm really thankful for it."