Guest Blog: Helping First-Generation College Students Persist to Graduation

As students across the nation head back to the classroom this month, we are celebrating First-Generation students. A First-Generation College Student is defined as a student whose parents didn’t attend college; or is the first person in their immediate family to attend college; or neither parent has at least one year of college. 

What is Project Connect?

Project Connect is a program at Mount Mercy University that serves low-income, first-generation, and racial and ethnic minority students. It begins with a three-week summer bridge program that gives students a head start on their college experience. Through this summer program, students complete a three-credit Psychology of Adjustment course, connect with various campus resources, receive instruction in establishing positive academic habits, and develop a strong sense of community with their classmates and peer mentors.

During the fall and spring semesters of their freshman year, students meet monthly with a dedicated advisor, receive continued support from experienced peer mentors, attend social and community-building events, complete monthly resiliency exercises, have access to a network of alumni mentors, and participate in educational workshops on topics related to financial aid, academic success, personal health and wellness, and career planning. If students meet certain milestones within the program, they will also receive free textbooks during their freshman year. After the completion of their first year at Mount Mercy, students are encouraged to continue their participation with the program through attendance at social events and educational workshops, meaningful interactions with alumni mentors, and continued support from the director of the program.

How did the program get started?

In recent years, approximately 65 percent of the incoming class at Mount Mercy came from traditionally underserved populations (low-income, first-generation, and/or racial and ethnic minority groups). Project Connect grew out of the desire to help ensure that those students are able to successfully persist to graduation. Through a generous grant from the Caerus Foundation, Project Connect serves to remove some of the potential barriers to success and works to promote a sense of community and academic self-confidence in our students. Not only do we want to recruit a diverse group of talented and committed students, we want to make sure that those students have every available resource needed to be successful and reach their goal of obtaining a college degree from Mount Mercy. 

What do you see this program doing for students from underserved populations?

Project Connect has three main objectives. Objective one is to prepare students for the academic rigor of higher education and launch them into a successful college experience. In many instances, incoming first year students, especially those eligible for Project Connect, do not have personal or familial experience with higher education. During the summer program, the students maintain a very rigorous schedule that is intended to be even more challenging than a normal semester would be. This gives students an opportunity to experience university life with a strong support network in place and use it as a learning experience to be better prepared when the fall semester begins. Objective two is to help students develop into strong campus leaders. The intent of Project Connect is to push the students beyond any perceived limitations and encourage them to pursue positions of leadership so that they will thrive both on and off campus. Objective three is to set the students on a path toward graduation and a successful career path. Again, Project Connect is not solely focused on the first year of college. We want to ensure that students feel prepared to continue toward graduation and pursue a high level of career-readiness as they approach the end of their time at Mount Mercy.

Project Connect gives students the support they need to be successful. It connects them with campus resources and helps them understand how to best take advantage of those resources. Too often, students from underserved populations get the message from society that college isn’t the right place for them. Project Connect hopes to counteract that message by creating a space in which students’ strengths are valued and their experiences and backgrounds are viewed as assets. Project Connect celebrates their diversity, helps them realize their potential, and reminds them that they do, in fact belong here {at Mount Mercy}.

Jennifer McNabb has worked in higher education since 2006, and she currently serves as the director of Project Connect at Mount Mercy University. As a first-generation college graduate herself, Jennifer is passionate about helping students, especially those from underserved populations, achieve their goal of earning a college degree.