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USM Joins Universities Nationwide to Celebrate First-Generation Students

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 06:10am | By: Van Arnold

The University of Southern Mississippi Center for Faculty Development and Office of New Student and Retention Programs are partnering to promote and accentuate First- Generation College Celebration Day – a nationwide initiative set for Nov. 8.

The national Center for First-Generation Student Success launched the initiative in 2017 as a vehicle for college and universities to celebrate the success of first-generation college students, faculty, and staff on their campuses in every way possible. This marks USM’s inaugural participation in the event.

Dr. Kelly Lester, Director of USM’s Center for Faculty Development (CFD), learned of the national celebration by reading about other universities who adopted similar missions. Simultaneously, the Office of New Student and Retention Programs (NSRP) was investigating ways to support first generation college students. This led to the collaboration on a USM-sponsored agenda.

“At USM, approximately 31 percent of our students are first-generation college students and about 35 percent of faculty and staff are first-generation,” said Lester. “This event allows faculty to ‘out’ themselves as first-generation college students and thus connect with our students. It celebrates a common experience that is grounded in persistence and grit.”

Lester notes that the CFD is managing the faculty/staff side of participation, while the NSRP will oversee the student side. As part of the celebration, first-generation faculty and staff will receive a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “First Gen, Too” to be worn on Nov. 8. Participants will gather on the Hattiesburg and Gulf Park campuses for a photo to demonstrate what Lester calls “collective synergy.”

Holly Grider, Assistant Director for First Year Programs at USM, notes that NSRP will conduct a social media campaign throughout the week leading up to the Nov. 8 celebration, with encouraging words from faculty, staff, and alumni who are also first-generation students.

“Individuals do have the ability to remain anonymous, if they choose,” said Grider. “We will be posting all of the wonderful words of encouragement on the NSRP Facebook page throughout the week.”

Grider says the collaboration with Lester and others in the CFD has strengthened the bond between the offices and produced a wide array of ideas that could be used for future celebrations.

“I am hoping that this becomes an annual event and that our partnership continues to grow each year,” said Grider. “Ari’Anna Magee, our Coordinator for First Year Programs, is also working with the Alumni Association to bring in involvement from alumni who may also be first-generation. This is hopefully the start of a new tradition here at Southern Miss and a way for multiple entities to help our first-generation students feel more connected to campus.”

As a first-generation college student herself, Lester knows all to well the uncertainty and confusion that often confronts first-time collegians.

“First-generation college students face slightly different obstacles than other students. The support systems are different, and they rely more heavily on the community at the university,” she said. “In my case, I felt like I had to figure out how to fit in with the culture at a university. I had trouble explaining scenarios to my family, and I struggled to justify why balancing a job and school was different from my parents’ experience of working. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to be successful because I was the first one to pursue higher education, and ultimately my family’s emotional support helped me attain that goal.”

To learn more about First-Generation College Celebration Day, visit: