Support and celebrate first-generation college students — they’ve come a long way

People wave orange and black pom poms and hold signs that say Welcome Upward Bound and Upward Bound Event
Upward Bound Class of 2020 graduates were celebrated with a drive through parade.

Let us show support for our inclusive community this month with a celebration of our first-generation college students, faculty and staff members.

These individuals will be recognized on Nov. 8 as the nation and many institutions of higher education acknowledge and celebrate the fourth annual First-Generation College Celebration sponsored by the Center for First-Generation Student Success and the Council for Opportunity in Education.

Nov. 8 was selected as the date for the annual event to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The Higher Education Act emerged out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. It provided federal grants and loan programs to help students finance their educations.

Additionally, the Higher Education Act ushered in programs, particularly the Federal TRIO Programs, necessary for postsecondary access, retention and completion for low-income, potential first-generation college graduates.

Initial TRIO programs included Talent Search, Upward Bound and Student Support Services. They later were followed by the Educational Opportunity Centers, Veterans Upward Bound, Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program and Upward Bound Math-Science.

Today, TRIO serves more than 800,000 students at more than 2,300 institutions of higher education and community-based agencies across the United States and in several U.S. territories. Through TRIO, more than 5 million Americans have become the first members of their families to earn baccalaureate degrees, according to NASPA, a professional organization for student affairs administrators in higher education.

Students in the Minority Mentor Program. (Photo taken prior to COVID-19.)

First-Generation College Celebration day is near and dear to my heart for several reasons.

As a former TRIO professional and recipient, I have worked with thousands of first-generation students in Middle Georgia. Some of those students even matriculated to Mercer University through the Educational Opportunity Center.

One of those students was LaDarius Thomas, who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer engineering from Mercer in 2018. He was the recipient of the Papa Joe Hendricks Award and is now pursuing a doctoral degree at Georgia Tech.

As a diversity and inclusion director, it is also important to recognize, celebrate and support these students in our Mercer community. As the identifier implies, these students are the first in their families to go to college.

In the current fight for equity and access on many higher education campuses, it is equally important to acknowledge and provide additional academic, financial, social and mental health resources and opportunities to these students to ensure their success, survival and matriculation to graduation.

Mercer has several TRIO Programs aimed at supporting first-generation college students including the Educational Opportunity Center, Upward Bound, Office of Nontraditional and Evening Services, Minority Mentor Program and Opportunity Scholars.

In addition, Mercer has the Mercer Firsts Program, which is a community of first-generation college freshmen committed to attaining success at Mercer. The program connects each participant with an experienced mentor, a community of support and guidance throughout the first year of college.

Be sure to check out all of the TRIO and Mercer First programming for next semester, including Diversity Day, MLK Living the Dream, and the Real Talk sessions. I also encourage faculty and staff members to become mentors for the Mercer Firsts Program. I have two great mentees this year.

Celebrate success. #CelebrateFirstGen


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