by Lara Lomicka and Jennifer Eidum
The number of first-generation students is on the rise on college and university campuses. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, as of 2011-12, approximately one third of undergraduates in the United States identified as first-generation. What happens when these students begin their college journey? How can we help them to thrive? One proven high-impact practice that can help facilitate their success is engagement in learning communities.
Living-learning communities (LLCs) can help increase retention and graduation rates for first-generation students because they provide a built-in way for them to engage with faculty and peers in meaningful ways during the critical first years of college. Whether in LLCs specifically created for them or in other types of LLCs, first-generation students can thrive in these enriched environments. Building upon the psychological concept of flourishing, Laurie Schreiner uses the word thriving in the context of the college experience to describe students with high levels of academic, personal, and social well-being and resilience; she presents what she calls the thriving quotient as a tool to analyze student success in five dimensions: “(1) engaged learning, (2) academic determination, (3) positive perspective, (4) diverse citizenship, and (5) social connectedness.”
In our recent study, we examined how students’ thriving in these dimensions correlates with various components of living-learning communities. Results revealed that first-generation students living in LLCs demonstrate higher levels of thriving than do average LLC students in the areas of academic determination, diverse citizenship, and positive perspective, while demonstrating lower levels of thriving in social connectedness. What this means is that first-generation students participating in LLCs demonstrate higher confidence and self-efficacy in their academic life, have a stronger desire to make positive change in their community and approach others with more confidence and curiosity, and are more satisfied with their lives and enjoy their college experience – but they still struggle in feeling connected to others and building strong friendships.
LLCs can strengthen connections for these students by offering opportunities that take advantage of already made support systems, academic coaching, and community mentorship. New residential spaces for supporting these students have been established at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The First-Generation LLC at Hofstra University focuses on creating a sense of community and pride for first-generation students. After last year’s pilot program, with a third of the students in the LLC identifying as first-generation, the program quickly grew. As Russ Smith, associate director of residence life, explains, “Applications filled around 60% of the building, and the remaining random assignments were made as cross-referenced against a list of students who identified as first gen, but who did not register a housing preference.” Programming ranges from community-building social activities to transitional programs focusing on financial literacy and campus connections. Their most popular program is the “First-Gen Family Dinner,” when a “chef” cooks a family dinner for the students; chefs have included the provost, VPs, and several deans, many of whom identify as first-generation themselves.
At the University of Central Florida, the First Time in College (FTIC) LLC provides a new residential space for first-generation students. Its residential curriculum is focused on four key competencies: self-awareness, cultural competence, community engagement, and global impact. Residents are connected with the university’s Knights First-Generation Scholars program and participate in programs that include community engagement activities and one-on-one advising and mentoring. After its pilot year, the program has proved to be a success. As Tammie Nadeau, assistant director, notes, “So far, the students seem to be enjoying an inclusive community focused on their first-generation intersectional identities.”
“I was inspired by these individuals as they have opened my eyes to why it’s important for us to work on ourselves personally and professionally. I’ve gained an incredible amount of happiness and motivation to aspire to be great leaders like them! . . . The community gave us the opportunity to be a part of the GeoScholars, which is a small geoscience program on campus for minority, first-generation, and low-income students. This program provides funding that pays for housing in a sustainable LLC, along with social events and great mentorship from faculty. The sustainable LLC students at the U of SC have 1-on-1 coaching sessions throughout the year, and we have plenty of chances to interact with first-generation students at the events coordinated by the wonderful LLC staff!” — Jaquan High, University of South Carolina
“Connected courses were most helpful. In my college fellows LLC, we all took our first year winter term course together. The course was also travel-embedded; we went to D.C. As a community, we got to bond over the difficulty of the course and the fun experiences we had off campus. It made us more of a community.” — Nicole Galante, Elon University
The first-generation LLCs at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Memphis in Tennessee are successful examples of established programs. UCLA’s First To Go LLC offers an extra layer of support for first-generation students: increased connections to faculty and staff, resources specific to these students, and a support system of first-generation peers. One of their more successful programs is resilience training, which facilitates peer networking and provides a more intimate way for students to connect, share their experiences, and support each other through informal interactions in their living spaces.
The First Scholars LLC at the University of Memphis is open to first-generation and low-income students, housing a population that is both culturally diverse and composed of an equal number of males and females. First Scholars take a common course together in the first semester, taught by First Scholars staff, which provides an introduction to the university. Students ranked monthly one-on-one sessions with the First Scholars staff as the activity that has most helped them to succeed and feel at home on campus. As Jaclyn Rodriguez, program coordinator, comments, “We have maintained 100% retention of our freshmen cohorts each year, and I believe that we are able to do so because of the LLC and the strong support system that we have built for our students through these activities and requirements.”
Despite the advantages of such programs, one challenge that first-generation students still face is the rising cost of campus housing. To help students with this burden, the First Scholars program offers workshops, financial aid and scholarships, and – partnering with several offices on campus – they help students find jobs both on and off campus. At UCLA, they make a concerted effort to keep costs as low as possible. Abby Johnson, living-learning communities coordinator, points out that the First To Go community is among the more affordable housing options.
Whether creating new LLCs or reinvigorating established ones, LLC staff should consider the following ideas to foster thriving in first-generation students:
Mentoring programs can be particularly helpful. Victoria Ponds, a student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, relates how much mentors meant to her college experience: “I didn’t meet any other first-generation students at the Green Quad (LLC) until my second semester living there. . . . All students in my community had a mentor. I had one-on-one mentoring, and my mentor helped me find ways to integrate with my residence hall as I felt very disconnected at first. She encouraged me to join Green Scholars and to pursue Graduation with Leadership Distinction, and she really helped me make a personalized plan for my future.”
For first-generation students, LLCs offer many benefits, whether the LLC is intended for first-generation students or not. LLCs provide support, aid in the transition to college, connect students with available resources, and help them establish networks with faculty and staff and build lasting relationships with their peers. LLCs designed specifically for first-generation students often also offer one-on-one mentorship with faculty and staff, opportunities for cultural and service experiences, and resources to maximize student persistence and success at the institution. Ultimately, LLCs of all types help first-generation students fit in and feel more comfortable, thus boosting their confidence in being part of the university community.
Karen Inkelas and associates, National Study of Living-Learning Programs: 2007 Report of Findings.
Lara Lomicka, Warren Chiang, Ghada Endick, Jill Stratton, and Jennifur Eidum, “Thriving in Residential Learning Communities: An Investigation of Student Characteristics and RLC Types,” presented at the Conference on Residential Learning Communities as a High Impact Practice (2019).
Laurie Schreiner, “The ‘Thriving Quotient’: A New Vision for Student Success,” About Campus (May/June 2010).
U.S. Department of Education, “First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes,” Stats in Brief, NCES 2018-421 (February 2018).
Lara Lomicka is a professor of French and applied linguistics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She also serves as the faculty principal of Preston Residential College at the University of South Carolina. LOMICKA@mailbox.sc.edu Jennifer Eidum is an assistant professor of English and the live-in faculty director of the Global Neighborhood at Elon University in North Carolina. firstname.lastname@example.org