First Gen Hawks: Connecting Students for Success

The system is designed to get the exact results we are getting.

I heard a statement like this several years ago at a national conference. As I observed multiple head nods across the room, I was struck by the collective acknowledgment I had not observed before – at a mainstream higher education conference, nonetheless – that to make significant changes in educational attainment, we must address structure and systems as opposed to putting the onus solely on the student.

First-generation college students have long been studied in various higher education circles and countless colleges and universities have created programs and supports for decades. However, collegiate attainment rates for first-generation students continue to lag behind national averages and barriers to their success are still prevalent. Perhaps this is one reason, coupled with broader calls for improving equity, that first-generation students have received renewed attention the past several years. NASPA recently established the Center for First-Generation Student Success and campuses across the country have grown or implemented new programs that focus on the success of first-generation students. Perhaps what is most profound in this recent landscape is the increased focus on an institutional level; implementing structural change in addition to providing enhanced supports and connections to opportunity.

The University of Iowa is no exception to this next wave of approaches. We have created campus-wide initiatives to address systemic barriers and promote training for faculty and staff. Further, multiple campus supports exist for first-generation students, including TRIO Student Support Services, a First-Gen Living Learning Community, and more. In order to continue to align services and supports with student needs and experiences, a new initiative, First Gen Hawks, will be implemented in fall 2020. First Gen Hawks will connect a group of 200 students to evidence-based practices for first-generation student success.

The core of the program centers on engaging students during their first year with experiential learning opportunities that, as previous institutional data illustrate, improve student learning and persistence. Such opportunities include courses that explore mentored campus employment, undergraduate research, and civic engagement and leadership.

Wrap around supports are also just as critical. Each course will host embedded peer mentors who will provide academic and social support, both in and out of class. Additional staff will provide individualized assistance around goal setting and navigating campus resources and the collegiate environment. Specialized events that help form connections between students and faculty/administration are also integral and will occur throughout the academic year to promote additional mentoring opportunities for students. All staff and faculty connected to the students will also use the University’s student success platform that leverages timely survey and institutional data to provide outreach and support as concerns arise and to celebrate successes and key milestones.

The program’s goals include promoting a sense of belonging for student participants and providing individualized support and connections to opportunities that will enhance educational experiences. However, the underlying hope is that the impact of the First Gen Hawks program goes beyond improved individualized student supports and contributes to institution-level change and, ultimately, results in a more equitable, inclusive system for all University of Iowa students.

Mirra serves as the director in Academic Support and Retention at the University of Iowa, an office that coordinates campus-wide initiatives to support undergraduate students in their academic success. Prior to this role, Mirra worked in other capacities to facilitate college student readiness, transition, and success, such as U.S. Department of Education Upward Bound and GEAR UP programs to prepare students from low income backgrounds for college; a U.S. Department of Education Title III grant to redesign developmental education and improve student outcomes; and a U.S. Department of State grant to provide a short-term ESL experience for sixty students from East Asia. Her work spans both two-year and four-year sectors having taught developmental writing and college composition at St. Louis Community College and Missouri State University. Mirra received her bachelor’s degree in English and Master’s in Higher Education Administration, both from the University of Missouri, and a PhD in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.