How Educators Can Prime First-Generation College Students for Success

A Conversation with Melva Williams, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Southern University at Shreveport, Louisiana and 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar

Entering college is only half the battle for first-generation college students — higher education leaders must partner in the success of students new to the system.

Administrators present diplomas at Southern University in June 2020. (via Facebook @SUShreveport)

Melva Williams serves as vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management at Southern University at Shreveport. A former associate dean of the college at Centenary College, the 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar has served in higher education leadership roles for more than 15 years.

Dr. Williams spoke with William McKenzie, the Bush Institute’s senior editorial advisor, about the challenges that collegians face when they are in the first generation of their families to attend a university. For our workforce as a whole, where jobs increasingly require at least some post-secondary education, enrolling more first-generation students into college and graduating them with a degree is a pressing need. She also discussed the unique challenges of returning to campus in the middle of a pandemic. 

What are the essentials for success for first-generation college students? And how might those essentials differ from students whose families have a history of sending family members to college?

It is important for students to start with the end in mind. That means going to college not just to major in something. College is an incubation period for innovation, collaboration, network building, and developing that entrepreneurial spirit. 

That is probably the most significant difference I see between education now and when I went to school. We majored in something and that was the job you did forever.  

Now in college, it is time to start that T-shirt business or create the next app that we can’t live without. Once students get to college, they should be embracing the entire experience of education, not just following the curriculum. This is the time to invest in your small business or your idea and benefiting from all the resources a college offers. 

There’ll never be another period in your life where you’ll have an access to this organic market share than with your classmates in college. And you are able to get feedback from your peers. 

I also think the difference today is that colleges are looking at how they add value by providing a chance to learn soft skills and create cultural connections that some students at risk do not have. You need those soft skills and interpersonal skills to succeed in the workforce.

How do you all help students develop those networks and soft skills and create those entrepreneurial projects? 

We have a business incubator on our campus that allows students and community members to get information about developing that business plan, while also earning a traditional degree. And we have partnered with Success Training Institute to help us provide soft-skills training to our students.

When a student graduates, their transcript will have all of the As and Bs on there. But we want employers to know that our students can work in teams, solve problems, and think critically. A degree is a degree is a degree, but these are some of the value-adds we are trying to provide. 

Southern University's Williams Center for Undergraduate Student Achievement scholars visit the African American Museum in Dallas on March 3, 2020. (via Facebook @SUShreveport)

How do you all stay on top of a student’s academic progress? For example, what are teacher/counselor ratios like?

We’ve embraced a model of “intrusive advisement” and have seen results. We monitor achievement indicators through early alert systems. We can determine in advance how to address issues. Waiting for a student to come to you with a problem is usually not going to happen. 

We monitor achievement indicators through early alert systems. We can determine in advance how to address issues. Waiting for a student to come to you with a problem is usually not going to happen.

None of this matters, of course, if our students don’t feel a connection with their advisors and our coaches. So building that connection is key. And building connections with faculty members has been a key ingredient in ensuring students matriculate. Building a culture around connecting with our students has been very important in ensuring they stay the course.  

Of course the advisor/student ratio is not what we would want it to be. We’d love to have a one-to-one match. But that’s not fiscally reasonable, so we have about a 50-to-1 advisor ratio. We think that has proven to work. 

Could you talk more about how professors are involved in these early alert systems? 

We should change the name to an alert system, because at any point in the semester a faculty member can reach out to an academic coach to let them know a student hasn’t been in class for a week. It may have started out as another responsibility for faculty to do, but they see the value in managing retention and mitigating obstacles to success.

What kind of work-study programs might you may have? How do they help students make it through college? And, are the funds sufficient given the realities of the pandemic?

We are launching a work-study program that will allow students to not only work on campus but to work off-campus and have experiences in the workforce. Students in our top-ranked allied health and nursing programs go into the workforce and gain hands-on experience. 

These programs also are good for students that have not quite decided what they want to do. They might be able to work in an accounting firm, an ad agency, or someplace else and determine what they see themselves doing in the future. When I was doing work-study back in college, the job might have meant filing or taking mail across the campus. We have reframed this concept to provide more workforce knowledge.

Sure, we need more money for these programs. The funding doesn’t always last throughout the entire semester. Students have the desire to do more, but the resources are not always there. 

The coronavirus has thrown everybody a curveball and education systems are hit as hard as any organization. What are you all anticipating for this fall? 

That is the $64,000 question. [Laughter] All colleges are making hard decisions. No one will know if you were on the right side of history until history has become history.

We are moving to a hybrid schedule where some students will come into the classroom one week and another group will attend classes the next week. Students will watch via Zoom during the week they are not attending in the classroom.  

Our applications are actually up. I suspect that is a result of the job market. When the unemployment rate goes up, people go back to retool. My expectation is that we’re going to see adults go back to college because certain jobs and careers are no longer there. A pandemic has changed our America and adults are probably going to be going back to college to hit the reset button. They want to enhance their skills for the future.

A pandemic has changed our America and adults are probably going to be going back to college to hit the reset button. They want to enhance their skills for the future.

What have you heard from students about the impact the end of the spring might have had on learning?

It been quite difficult for our students. We learned that we have a technology gap in our state and community. And there were so many variables that students experienced. I had the luxury of working from home and being able to close the door. But when we sent students home to protect them from the coronavirus outbreak, we learned they were in environments where many people were in a household. 

They didn’t have an ability to close the door so they could think and complete assignments. Multiple people might have been using the Wi-Fi in the house, and they didn’t have the ability to come to our computer labs because of safety concerns. 

The situation was very challenging. We heard from students over the summer that they are ready to come back to campus. They can focus and not have to take care of the kids or a little sister or brother. On campus, everyone is learning in an educational space and not being possibly distracted by the home environment. 

As the semester starts, are your counselors and tutors expecting they will be doing some catch-up academic work with students?

Yes. And here’s the thing that we did in our state: Louisiana implemented a pass/fail option that gave students the opportunity to choose a “pass” if they received an A, B, or C. If they received a D or F, they could withdraw from the course. That was done to get the student through the course and not penalize them because of the abrupt changes in learning instruction.

The part we don’t know yet is that if you got a pass for English 101 does that affect your learning once you get to English 102? Have you gone through the rigor required to actually succeed in the next level course since we had to abruptly change the instructional model to virtual? We really don’t know. We’re waiting to see how students actually achieved. That is yet to be determined if you received a “pass.” If you have a C in a math course and you are a nursing or pre-med major, you will need those strong foundational courses to matriculate appropriately.

Pandemic or not, what is the role of peer advisors? I was talking to one at a university in Texas whose campus serves first-generation students, and he mentioned the importance of the peer-to-peer connection.

Yes, absolutely. We have peer advisors and they’re phenomenal. Most times, the students want to see their peer advisor over their academic coach, because they feel like they’re getting the real deal since peer advisors have no skin in the game. Students know the peer advisors will give them the skinny.

Peer advisors have been most effective in ensuring that students matriculate properly, follow the curriculum, and telling them things like, “Look, do not skip this course. My friend did and it messed him up. He couldn’t graduate on time.” 

They see peer advisors as people that are like them as opposed to a parental type that is professionally advising them. They have been most effective for us. And the process strengthens our peer advisors academically because they now see themselves as being knowledgeable about the processes of the institution. So we’ve have seen a two-fold achievement.

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