University celebrates first-gen students with week-long event

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Photo courtesy of KC Gonzalez, senior associate director of academic- strategic commnications

Last week, UTSA hosted First-Gen Fest to celebrate its first-generation students.

Gauri Raje, News Editor

Last week, UTSA hosted “First-Gen Fest,” a week-long event featuring various programs to celebrate the university’s first-generation students, while also providing them with help and guidance as they navigate college. 

The fest kicked off on Monday, Nov. 7, with a Major/Career Exploration Workshop and a virtual First-Gen Family Social. The festival’s main event took place on Tuesday, Nov. 8, at the UTSA Central Plaza and commemorated National First-Gen Day. Several other events were held throughout the next two days. The fest ended on Veterans Day with a First-Generation Veteran Identity Workshop, which was aimed at recognizing military veteran students who are also first-generation.

“45% of our students are first-gen, and 15% of our students are military-affiliated … we have several veteran students who are also first-gen and so, we wanted to acknowledge that,” Tammy Wyatt, vice provost for student success, said.

Currently, UTSA offers its first-generation students a variety of resources, the most notable being the university’s First to Go & Graduate Program, which falls under the larger First-Generation and Transfer Student programs offered. Through the former, first-generation students can connect with a peer mentor who is also a first-generation student at UTSA. In addition, students are also assigned a faculty coach, who works with students and peer mentors to provide further guidance and assistance. 

“[Peer mentors can help students] talk … through experiences that they may have had that were similar … any struggles … challenges or any highlights,” Wyatt said.

Any first-generation student who meets the requirements can apply to be a peer mentor. All peer mentors receive a compensation salary for their work, which is funded by institutional dollars.

 “It’s great because it supports not only the student that’s being mentored, but it also supports a student [peer mentor] through on-campus employment,” Wyatt said. 

Over the course of the week, several
activites were held, with the fest’s main
event taking place on Tuesday, Nov. 8 at the
UTSA Central Plaza. (Photo Courtesy of Demetrius “DJ” Johnson, associate director of academic coaching and mentoring)

The First to Go & Graduate program also teams up with several offices across the university to help students navigate different aspects of college. Of note is the program’s collaboration with Financial Services to provide assistance with financial aid and help students as they fill out their FAFSA forms. 

Through the First to Go & Graduate Program, the university aims to provide assistance to incoming students; however, current students who would like to take advantage of the services can do so at any point in time. 

One of the ways that incoming first-generation students are made aware of the program is through freshman orientation. While this serves as the primary method to do so, the university is also engaged in “other outreach efforts,” Wyatt explained.

Along with the First to Go & Graduate program, UTSA also has the First-Generation Living Learning Community, which “offers an inclusive living environment while fostering a sense of belonging for residents.” Through this initiative, first-generation students can also participate in various workshops and events. In order to be a part of the program, students can indicate their interest when filling out their Housing Application.

[The First to Go & Graduate and the First-Generation Living Learning Community] work really well together — they work in tandem … so that not only are we able to help students in the classroom … but also [help them feel like] they’re connected to UTSA, connected to the university in general, connected to their major and their college,” Wyatt said.

As previously noted, the First to Go & Graduate program is primarily geared towards incoming students to help them navigate the university. On the other hand, the First-Gen STEM Scholars program is another opportunity for first-generation students who are further along in their journey at UTSA. Sponsored by USAA, the program provides eligible first-generation junior and senior students enrolled in STEM majors with the opportunity to receive an annual scholarship of up to $5,000. As with the First to Go & Graduate program, students also receive support from peer mentors and faculty coaches.

Through [the First-Gen STEM Scholars program], we’re working on the latter end of [the] college career … we’re able to help [rising juniors and seniors by providing them with] funding to get through,” Wyatt said. “[The] financial assistance also helps them [and] maybe they’re able to focus less on working outside of the institution, or it allows them to work fewer hours so that they [can] start to think about some of those career-engaged learning opportunities … those high impact practice opportunities that are so important.”

All of these opportunities are a part of what Wyatt describes as an “institution-wide approach” to support first-gen students at the university, with 45% of enrolled students at UTSA identifying as first-generation. Over the years, UTSA has seen measurable increases in retention rates and graduation rates for first-gen students. For example, the six-year graduation rate for first-gen students at the university has seen a 14% increase, going from 37% in 2017 to 51% in 2022. Similarly, a 15% increase was seen in degrees awarded annually to first-gen students, which went from 2,215 degrees in 2017 to 2,539 degrees in 2022. 

Any students interested in learning more about the program can contact the First-Generation and Transfer Student Programs team via email at [email protected]