New initiatives for first-generation students aim to support, engage

Members of the campus community come together to celebrate National First-Generation College Celebration Day on Nov. 8. Photo by Abby Ayre


In recent years, campus initiatives and resources such as the Morton-Finney Diversity Scholars Program, the DEI Innovation Fund and various diverse alumni networks have expanded their reach and goals which work to uphold Butler’s commitment to “preparing all learners to lead meaningful lives.” Although several of these valued initiatives have reached historically underserved and marginalized groups of prospective and current students, a gap has remained in the university’s efforts to intentionally connect with and nurture first-generation students on campus. 

After a global pandemic cut short plans made in 2019 for former Dean of Students Sally Click’s BUFirst initiative, current administrators are working to celebrate and support the first-generation community at Butler — from students to faculty to staff. 

Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Ross commissioned a charge for a workgroup in September 2022 that would be responsible for developing and advising new initiatives to serve the first-generation community on Butler’s campus. This workgroup, which met until its planned conclusion in spring of 2023, was comprised of a variety of representatives from campus such as the Office of Admissions, the Office of Financial Aid, the Efroymson Diversity Center, Butler Libraries and more. 

Meg Haggerty, who serves as director of the Office of New Students and Family Programs, was charged with the responsibility of leading the workgroup. Haggerty shared that the workgroup’s initial steps included looking outward at the guidance and leadership of other universities with significant first-generation populations in order to inform Butler’s areas for potential growth. 

“We attended a virtual professional development conference that was sponsored by an organization that facilitates first-generation student success, and throughout this conference the presenters were [from] several different universities who all had significant first-generation programming,” Haggerty said. “We were learning from their experiences … everything from activities and programs that they were offering at their institution [to] scholarships, mentorship programs and also attending sessions where we were learning about first-generation student needs.” 

Following the conference, the workgroup identified that further data collection regarding the first-generation community on campus would be necessary before developing further programming. In collaboration with the Office of Institutional Research, the group conducted polls of self-reported individuals who identified as first-generation in either their Common App responses or Free Application for Federal Student Aid

Based upon that data collection, the group identified that Butler is currently home to at least 760 first-generation undergraduate students, as well as between 90 and 100 faculty members and staff. In addition to self-reporting their first-generation identity, many community members claim intersectional identities that often inform the compounded experience of first-generation students. 

Ross stated in an email to The Butler Collegian that surveying first-generation students and maintaining a lens of intersectionality was crucial to understanding student input. 

“We are making sure that when we conduct surveys of all students … we also look specifically at responses from our first-gen students to help us better understand their experiences and how those relate to the broader student body,” Ross said in his email. “Understanding that helps us identify where there might be opportunities for support to better address their needs. We know there is great intersectionality for students who identify as first-gen and also with other identities represented at Butler, so it will be very helpful to hear from our students to learn what unique supports will be beneficial for them.” 

Elijah Heslop, a senior psychology and philosophy double major, shared that he felt isolated as a first-generation student when he first arrived at Butler. 

“A lot of being a first-gen student was navigating Butler on my own,” Heslop said. “I was thankful to have support to get me to enrollment … but there’s not really anyone when you get here, so I had to be very resourceful and establish [my own] connections. With that resiliency, I was able to connect with [staff] in the Student Success [Center] … and just connecting with my professors also gave me some guidance.” 

With the experiences of students like Heslop in mind, Haggerty and the workgroup created monthly reports and a final executive summary that Haggerty submitted to Ross, all detailing ideas for future activities, programming, long-term mentorship and networking opportunities that would serve the first-generation community on campus directly. 

Haggerty’s executive summary mentioned opportunities for faculty development that would help bridge Butler’s signature faculty support for students with more specific training for those who work with first-generation students. When paired with prospective long-term coaching and mentorship programs that would connect first-generation students to networking and their own professional development, this training would help establish accessible resources of material support and lasting connections to prepare students for college and beyond. 

Heslop reflected on his years at Butler, noting that networking and peer mentorship opportunities would have provided him with additional first-generation support had they been developed upon his arrival. 

“[A group for first-generation students] would make me feel more comfortable in navigating this because I would have a group of people who I could go to [to] ask questions,” Heslop said. “Now I would be more than happy to provide my experience to others … The fact that a lot of the colleges and a lot of [majors] also provide some sort of peer mentorship [is interesting], so definitely there were touch points to reach me. But I think that additional touch point [based upon that] shared identity would have been awesome.” 

Additionally, the workgroup discussed formulating additional targeted communications to new first-generation students both before and after their arrival to campus in order to address questions and concerns as well as amplify key campus offices, events and academic resources. These communications, which could take the form of digital webinars or email bulletins, would highlight crucial support systems and academic tools for first-generation students to take advantage of in their transition to collegiate life. 

Haggerty noted that the models and inspiration of other institutions proved to be a helpful guide for those in the workgroup researching and shaping future programs. 

“We have heard of other campuses that have had whole offices devoted to first-generation student needs and spaces,” Haggerty said. “That has not been identified as a priority yet, but I could see that being something that students might advocate for [in] the future. We learned of other institutions that offer pre-orientation programs specific to just first-generation students … there also were institutions that had a full month of programming for first-year first-generation students. There [are] opportunities to create first-generation specific sections of First Year Seminar that [have] been offered at other institutions. I think we have a model, and we have several other universities that we can model after. That could be future research for [a future] committee to evaluate.” 

The committee Haggerty mentioned is forthcoming and still in development, but will work in conjunction with student focus groups to create programming and opportunities for the first-generation community on campus starting in the spring 2024 semester. From faculty placards that indicate their own first-generation identities to the design and distribution of signature stoles for first-generation graduates, several of the ideas proposed in Haggarty’s initial executive summary may be carried out by the new committee in the coming months and beyond. 

“Next semester we plan to do focus groups with our current student population about some of the ideas that we had to try to gather their feedback, and see if it is salient with them and what they would like to see as a part of their experience,” Haggerty said. “I’ve had some students already volunteer to do that, so I’m looking forward to that opportunity. I will chair a committee of individuals that would help to plan and implement all this process of events that we’ve created for the future … [We want to create] opportunity for networking between our faculty, staff and students who have first-generation identities and to be able to help them have a common language to talk about what that experience means for them, and how we as an institution can help them better navigate their experience as well.” 

Already this semester, Haggerty and her team have begun to host events to celebrate first-generation students and build community with them to inform future initiatives. On Nov. 8 — widely celebrated as National First-Generation College Celebration Day — Haggerty, Ross and others met at the Starbucks Gazebo to hand out sweet treats and prizes to first-generation students, faculty and staff. 

“We decided to implement some of our initial activities starting in October and November of 2023, and that included a webinar viewing that was being hosted by the Center for First-Generation Student Success,” Haggerty said. “We purchased buttons and pins to hand out to faculty and staff and students to help acknowledge their experiences as first-generation students, and we handed out cookies to anyone who stopped by. [We also] amplified the stories of our own faculty and staff and students who are first generation via university social media. We’ve got much bigger ideas for scaffolding and scaling all these things, but [we’re] trying out some initial things, gathering feedback from students and seeing what is most beneficial for what they need in the future.” 

Ross affirmed this spirit of celebration, and emphasized the importance of acknowledging the presence and contributions of the first-generation community on campus.

“Acknowledging and celebrating our first-generation students is so important,” Ross said via email. “Doing so reinforces that they belong at our university, that we want them here, and that we believe in their ability to succeed … As a proud first-generation graduate myself, it truly is so special for me to see Butler acknowledging and celebrating our first-gen students!” 


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