• Program Supports First-Generation Students Through College, Into Their Careers

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
    August 20, 2014

    After extensively researching the characteristics, needs, and retention factors associated with first-generation (G1) college students, Merrimack College’s O’Brien Center for Student Success developed and executed a support initiative called Generation Merr1mack that aligns with the college’s strategic plan.

    “Generation Merr1mack is a holistic support initiative designed to assist G1 college students in their transition into, and through college,” explains Heather Maietta, associate vice president of career and corporate engagement and director of the O'Brien Center for Student Success.

    “Generation Merr1mack provides academic and social integration support on the front end of college, as well as actively infuses experiential learning, career preparation, and professional connections throughout the undergraduate experience. The initiative serves as a feeder for career-related events and activities. A strong, well-informed, well-connected postgraduate transition is the emphasis for the final year.”

    Based on the definition of “first-generation college student” as a student who had “neither parent graduate with a bachelor’s degree,” approximately 40 percent of Merrimack’s student body is made up of G1 college students.

    “We flag students as G1 when admitted, so they are automatically enrolled, but invited and encouraged to take an active part,” Maietta says. “The success of our program is our ability to gather data from a multitude of sources, such as the registrar’s office and admissions, and outreach from there.”

    Maietta explains that much of the research that has been done on G1 college students focuses on the transition into college and persistence through the first year. Her research goes beyond the first year, focusing on long-term persistence and postgraduate transition needs of G1 college students.

    “This research, along with other studies, student voices, and stories, informed our work,” Maietta says. “We asked ourselves what we can do to implement an initiative that will work to cover many of the apparent needs of G1 college students throughout the entire undergraduate experience and into their postgraduate destination.”

    Generation Merr1mack was launched in fall 2012. Participants are encouraged to take advantage of its programmatic features, including:

    • Mentor Focus—Students are contacted by their Generation Merr1mack peer mentor biweekly throughout the semester as a reminder of events and important academic information, and to provide the students with a constant contact person.
    • Academic Focus—Generation Merr1mack has partnered with offices such as the Center for Academic Enrichment to allow the mentors and mentees to attend workshops on special focus topics like time management, study skills, stress and anxiety, and overall academic success. After the first year, the focus shifts from general transitional support to professional and career-related support, so the support initiatives grow and evolve with the students’ development.
    • Social Focus—Mentors host small group activities on and off campus to promote a close-knit community for their student cohort. As an example, Generation Merr1mack works with the Office of Student Involvement and other campus-based offices to encourage mentors and mentees to attend social gatherings together.
    • Career Focus—Generation Merr1mack mentors are specifically supported by completing a variety of professional development tasks during the course of their mentorship. The mentees are supported by the O’Brien Center through their Generation Merr1mack peer mentor who relays important major exploration information, and experiential learning and leadership opportunities, as well as notification of O’Brien Center events that first-year students are encouraged to attend. Additionally, G1 students have access to industry professionals through alumni mentoring, externships, and more, reiterating “early and often” wrap-around support.

    Generation Merr1mack expanded in fall 2013 to include second-year G1 students and fall 2014 to include all junior G1 students.

    “Essentially, the program is growing and expanding with the inaugural Class of 2012,” Maietta says.

    Expansion from 2012 to 2013 showed:

    • An 85 percent increase in student outreach.
    • A 106 percent increase in student use of their peer mentor.
    • A 128 percent increase in student participation in campus events.

    In addition, 42 percent of students supported by Generation Merr1mack used the O’Brien Center by visiting for appointments and/or career lab.

    “Next year, the initiative will be in its fourth year, so we will be able to track long-term outcomes and tie these outcomes to graduation rates, and first-destination outcomes,” Maietta notes.

    Program directors also found that after being supported in their first year, many G1 college students express interest in becoming a Generation Merr1mack peer mentor in their second year.

    “Word of mouth promotion is very powerful,” Maietta says. “We have champions in both student leaders and senior leaders. For example, Tia Roy, now a Merrimack senior and G1 college student found her passion in working with G1 college students, and has been instrumental in the successful execution of this initiative. And Merrimack’s president, Christopher Hopey, is an advocate for experiential learning as a complement to the academic experience.”

    Maietta offers several tips to colleagues who are considering implementing a similar program for G1 college students:

    • Start the conversation now—Ask questions about how many G1 college students are on your college campus and ask about the current support that is offered to this population, if any.
    • Make an initiative relevant—Link the program directly to your college’s strategic plan, and have it feed your career center’s initiatives. Use data to strengthen and reinforce your value.
    • Create relationships with those who can make a difference—Bond with areas of the college that will want to work closely with you on your efforts to support such a worthy population.
    • Seek out passionate students—As soon as you begin conversations around G1 college students, identify and engage students who are truly passionate about your first-generation initiative and want to help and serve as program advocates among their fellow students.

    For more information, visit the Generation Merr1mack website at www.merrimack.edu/generationmerrimack.