ODI staff experts lead the way as the university boosts first-generation students

YSP staff, ODI first-generation staff, ODI first-generation students standing in Mirror Lake atrium steps

ODI staff experts lead the way as the university boosts first-generation students

By Aaron Marshall

For the one in five Buckeye students who are first-generation college students, the college experience brings an additional set of cultural and emotional hurdles to clear to stay on track to graduation.

A lack of specialized “college knowledge” that helps students navigate college, nagging self-doubt in the form of “imposter syndrome,” and the inherent complexity of the financial aid system all contribute to first-generation students graduating nationally at roughly one third the rate of their multi-generational counterparts.

First-generation students—defined as students whose parents did not graduate from a four-year institution—are in the spotlight this week as Nation First Generation College Student Day was held Monday, November 8th. Leading the way in advocating for the first-generation students at Ohio State are ODI staff members like Armada Henderson, the assistant director of the Young Scholars Program [YSP], a program for first-generation students plucked from Ohio's largest urban districts.

“We focus a lot on community building at Ohio State. We focus a lot on instilling a sense of belonging in first-generation students,” Henderson said. “It's about creating safe spaces for learning where students can express themselves freely from their own cultural and ethnic perspective.”

Apart from her YSP duties, Henderson regularly works with university partners to modify existing programs and develop new sources for first-generation students with high financial need. Before classes began this fall, Henderson was part of a team of first-generation experts who gave a presentation to new instructors at the university's Drake Teaching and Learning Institute.

At the session, instructors were told that increasing transparency, giving students more chances to engage with their peers, and offering constructive feedback are all proven strategies that help first-generation students succeed.

Henderson said first-generation students who are surpassing the achievements of their family members often feel internally conflicted. “They may need to balance the feelings about achievements in this space and what's available to their families with the opportunities they have back home,” she said.

Stephanie Arthur, a Black first generation student from Columbus who serves as the treasurer of Buckeye First, a student organization for first-generation students, said talking with her first-generation peers about her problems has made all the difference.

“Personally for me, I'm in engineering which is really a white male field. It's very isolating sometimes,” said Arthur, a second-year YSP student who majors in material engineering. “When I talk with other first-gen students about my problems, it makes me think I can actually do this, I should be here.”

The YSP staff goes out of their way to ease the challenges that first-generation students go through, according to Arthur. “They understand what I'm going through and have been a great support system and shoulder to cry on when I needed that,” she said.

Named a First Generation Forward Institution several years ago by a first-generation advocacy group, Ohio State faculty and staff have made more of a concerted effort to share best practices and effective strategies in recent years, according to Henderson. “Some of it has been slow, but we're beginning to build a network so that we can utilize resources and each other to expand the services for all first-generation students on campus,” she said.