Pioneers in Their Families
Since its founding in 1891, Buena Vista University has had a long history of providing educational opportunities for students who were the first in their families to attend college. To this day, first-generation students are educational pioneers in their families, role models for their siblings and other relatives and friends.
Demographic changes in the United States are adding a new dimension to the socioeconomic makeup of potential first-generation students, primarily due to the growth of population groups that have historically been underserved in higher education. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, by 2022 almost half of all new public high school graduates are projected to be members of minority groups, and if they go on to college, many will be the first in their families to do so.
Based on the results of a spring 2011 survey of students by James Hewett, institutional researcher, it’s estimated that parents of 23 percent of the students at BVU’s Storm Lake campus ended their formal education at, or prior to, completion of high school. In total, approximately 54 percent of students will be the first in their family to earn a four-year degree, which includes those who reported their parents had an associate’s degree, or had some other education beyond high school, but not a baccalaureate degree. The survey had a 49 percent response rate.
Through an array of academic and co-curricular programs and support services, BVU is well-positioned to serve the needs of its students, including first-generation, according to Dr. David Evans, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty.
“We are a small, intimate and supportive campus community that understands and appreciates the special character of first-generation students,” says Evans. “While all students can certainly benefit from our hands-on approach to teaching and learning, and from our faculty’s devotion to mentoring, these qualities of BVU are especially valuable to first-generation students.”
The centerpiece of BVU’s efforts to help first-year students make the transition from high school to college life is University Seminar, which is designed to highlight programs that support student success as well as value-added educational opportunities. Dr. Peter Steinfeld, associate dean of the faculty, helped with the redesign of the first year experience which was implemented last fall.
Steinfeld says University Seminar is part of an integrated plan to immerse first-year students — especially first generation students — in experiences that broaden their understanding of global issues; provide a successful transition to college; establish foundational skills that poise students for future success; invest students in the life of BVU; develop positive relationships with faculty, staff, and other students; develop meaningful relationships with academic and cocurricular advisors; move students beyond their comfort zone; allow students to explore possible majors and career options; and give students an opportunity to become more self-reflective about the roles and purposes of higher education.
Mark Shea, Class of 1994, director of student success, says the issues he sees with first-generation students are not very different from students whose parents have college degrees.
“What seems most prevalent for some first generation students is that they may struggle to see college as a long-term investment, unlike students of parents who have already made that investment,” says Shea. “In most cases, I think Buena Vista is absolutely the right place to help students be successful, so I find out why the student is thinking otherwise and we talk about it. I want them to know that above all else, I want them to be successful.”
For students from families with limited means to fund a college education, BVU offers a variety of financial assistance programs — including scholarships and grants that recognize the unique contribution that each student brings to the university — and helps with coordinating state and federal aid funding. Within the past year, BVU benefactors have also established two new award programs to assist students who will in some instances be first-generation students.