Guest Speaker Colby King talks with faculty and staff about supporting first-generation working class students.

WPI Faculty and Staff Share Experiences during First-gen, Working Class Background Event

Faculty and staff paired with first-generation college students in mentorship program
December 11, 2019

Faculty and staff who identify as first-generation college students or as coming from a working-class background recently shared their personal stories with WPI students from similar backgrounds in order to support them.

Elisabeth Stoddard, assistant teaching professor and co-director, International Development, Environment and Sustainability, said three campus events this fall focused on supporting working-class and first-gen college students with first-gen faculty and staff sharing their experiences, and workshops on supporting working-class students in the classroom.

Speaking at the event, Colby King, assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Upstate, discussed specific strategies for supporting working-class students in the classroom, drawing from his own research and experiences, and talked about how to prevent campuswide prejudice based on class.

Sponsored by the SWEET Grant Project and the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center, the goal of the event was for students to hear from faculty and staff who can serve as supporters, sounding boards, and mentors, Stoddard explains.

“We want to understand the experiences of those students to ensure WPI has the tools to support them,” she says. “A lot of times colleges look at bringing in first-generation students in terms of a deficit—they may not have had the same coaching, they may be lower-income, and their high schools may not have prepared them as well—versus thinking of it in terms of strengths.”

For example, the experiences of a first-generation college student with five siblings who grew up with a single mom may have resulted in that student being well organized, motivated, or self-reliant, she says. That same student may have more insight into the experiences of people from underrepresented communities when working in WPI’s project centers, she says, and having the experience to help those in need.

“We look at the benefits of diversity on teams, and benefits of something that others may see as a deficit and not rewarded or honored,” says Stoddard.. “It is about creating opportunities and access for lower-income students. WPI is one of the universities reaching out to high schools that may not have traditionally had colleges reach out to them in this way before.”

This reflects WPI’s founding philosophy, according to Philip Clay, Vice President for Student Affairs. “In 1865," he says, "WPI founder John Boynton envisioned providing the finest education for first-class minds to lead a fledgling industrial economy. WPI’s early student population consisted almost entirely of first-generation students looking for an industrial education to prepare them to work in the growing economies of the industrial revolution.” 

Today, roughly 14% of WPI’s undergraduate student body identify as first in their family to go to college.

“It’s important for WPI to support these students as they navigate the college landscape, and we work to break down any barriers that prevent them from being successful inside and outside the classroom so that they can graduate on time and go on to successful careers,” Clay says. “The university has committed to specialized programming and mentorship opportunities from staff, faculty, and senior-level students.  We are excited about these events and the work ahead.”

Stoddard said that workshops at the event were aimed at helping faculty and staff with considerations in the classroom for working-class students who may have obligations and responsibilities other students do not, including working on weekends or having a full-time job and family obligations.

“Faculty is finding ways to create time in the classroom for these students to get essential teamwork done,” she says.

Faculty can also take for granted the knowledge students are coming in with, she says, but should consider if they have a syllabus that is transparent, for instance, or if a student understands the level of dress expected when they attend a conference to fit in appropriately.

“Don’t assume your students know those kinds of things,” Stoddard says.

Faculty should also be mindful of hidden costs beyond tuition and books, she says.

“Faculty and administrators need to be aware of hidden costs and address that in whatever ways possible,” she says. “There is a lot of recognition on college campuses and a celebration of diversity, but we don’t have that kind of same celebration around class. It is not an identity much talked about or celebrated.

“Coming to university, the expectation is that you move up in class. It is a cultural sentiment we convey about how we feel about a working-class background and working to get out of it. At WPI we’re not aiming to erase a working-class status. We are enriched and we benefit from all different classes. That background should be incorporated into who you are as a graduate and not to erase or escape your class background or identity. It is an important component of who you are.”

In an exercise during the workshop, people were asked to share experiences about themselves, she says.

“The thing that stuck out to me the most was that there was not a person in that room who didn’t talk about incredible debt to get to their position,” she says. “Debt was overwhelming and they said they owe more in debt than they make in a year. That, to me, is something you hear people talking about on the debate stage, but to hear colleagues experiencing that, to me made a difference.”

Matt Foster, associate director of residential services, said that 13 percent of WPI’s Class of 2023, and 14 percent of the Class of 2022 are classified as first-generation students. 

He said programs for first-generation students at WPI include “First Friday” events, where students connect and engage with each other and with WPI faculty and staff on the first Friday of each month. National First-Gen Day Celebration at WPI (through the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators First Generation Success program) is a fellows program where staff and faculty engage with a cohort of students through one-on-one interactions to discuss their experiences on campus and provide referrals and support; it's a mentorship program where upper-class students assist in events through mentorship of first-year students.

“The programs have just begun this year," Foster explains, "but are helping students build connections to individuals they can go to with questions or concerns.”  

The programs are important because, statistically, first-generation students are less likely to complete their degree in four years, and are less likely to be retained by an institution, he says.

Emily Perlow, assistant dean of students, serves as a mentor to six students in the mentoring program Foster set up that pairs students with a faculty or staff member.

“Because we know first-gen students often don’t have family members who know how college ‘works,’ our role is to be someone that the students feel can help them if they have questions and aren’t sure who to ask,” Perlow says. “The goal is to meet with them regularly to check in.”

Perlow says she is also one of two people on campus who are in place to specifically support parents of first-generation students.

“While we try hard at WPI to give good customer service no matter where a parent calls, it can be hard to know where to call if you haven’t had prior college experience,” Perlow explains. “Some of our terms can be confusing—like, bursar or registrar. Sometimes first-gen parents aren’t even sure who to ask. My experience has been that having one person who you’ve met and you know can help you, helps improve the experience of both students and parents.”

Additionally, Perlow says there is a first-generation “living-learning community” with faculty and student mentors assigned to the floor; and there are drop-in events on campus, including at the academic resource center, that offer regular lunches and educational programming, coordinated by Foster, that target first-generation students and ensure that students are regularly reminded of deadlines and available resources.

Foster says the programs and initiatives are a good start and WPI is collaborating with other institutions to expand programs for first-generation students and those coming from a working-class background.

“WPI has begun to provide success opportunities for first-generation students and is currently providing support for first-year students,” he says. “However, we do have a lot of work to do to provide support and success opportunities for all students, including transfer and graduate students. While WPI is doing some work, we have a lot to learn from others in the field who are doing some phenomenal work with success programs.”

Additional programs on campus:

Connections Program: a comprehensive network of support services that target underrepresented students of color and first-generation college students.

Innovations: a program to optimize access to campus resources and support first-year students who identify as first-generation college students. The program is designed to foster student’s personal, academic, and professional development at WPI through programming, mentorship, and a living and learning community.

Insight Program: During New Student Orientation and through the first two terms at WPI, students are part of a group including advisors that is dedicated to assisting in the transition to college.      

OASIS Cultural Center: a centralized location for students to meet and study in a relaxing environment, giving them a place to build a community.

MASH Tutoring Center: upper-class students help others who are learning the material for the first time to understand the material and to meet instructors’ expectations.