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Cultivating Student Success: How UA Little Rock Resources Empower First-Generation Students

First-generation college students and new transfer students participate in a Welcome Week back to school event on campus.
First-generation college students and new transfer students participate in a Welcome Week back to school event on campus.

November is First-Generation College Student Celebration Month. With more than 40 percent of its student population being first-generation students, UA Little Rock is especially committed to providing resources that help this special group of students reach their potential. 

“One of the biggest challenges first-generation students face in college is navigating a complex system such as a university,” said Heather Reed, director of Student Retention Initiatives. “There are so many processes that involve many offices. Luckily, Student Retention Initiatives can assist first-generation students in learning the university. It can be difficult to ask for help, and we make it easy through the Care Team, a support network for all students.”

Members of the Care Team work closely with students to establish steps to reduce barriers to success. They take proactive action to support students in their pursuit of academic success, connect individuals to campus and community resources, create a supportive and caring culture for students, and establish best practices and standard protocols of response for academic referrals. Students who need assistance can contact the Care Team by filling out this online form, while faculty and staff who are concerned about a student can fill out this referral form.

“We also offer peer mentors who are upper-class students who have successfully navigated various processes and have knowledge of the university,” Reed said. “First-generation students can request to be matched with a peer mentor to help them with a variety of issues, such as building locations, learning traditions, tips for academic success, and how to get involved on campus. Many of the staff in our office are first-generation college students so we understand first-hand the challenges students face and how to overcome those challenges.”

The Office of Student Retention Initiatives also holds welcome events for new students and celebrates first-generation students every November during First-Generation College Student Celebration Month.

“For me, being a first-generation student is a catch-22. I’m very excited that I decided late in age to go back to school,” said Veronica Tess Myers, a first-generation student studying applied communication who attended the Nov. 8 celebration. “I finally finished getting my bachelor’s and am looking forward to acquiring my master’s degree. However, it’s also a little bit of sadness. I’m considered to be a know-it-all because I went further. A lot of the reason why I went further is because of my autistic son and having to learn what I needed for him to succeed.”

Since 1978, UA Little Rock’s TRIO Student Support Services has provided resources to help increase the rates of academic achievement, retention, and graduation among historically disadvantaged students.

“TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) provides services to a limited number of eligible UA Little Rock students,” said Dr. Desarae Nelson, director of TRIO SSS. “Eligibility requirements include: first generations, and/or limited income, and/or disabled. SSS offers: a scholarship, weekly workshops, financial literacy, cultural events, textbook loans, tutoring, career readiness, and graduate school trips. SSS seeks to motivate students toward the successful completion of their post-secondary education. The goal of the program is to increase participants’ college persistence, support them through graduation, and facilitate the transition from one level of higher education to the next. The program is funded by the US Department of Education.”

Dr. Mike Kirk, director of health services and counseling services, said that both units offer great resources to help first-generation students adapt to college life.

“Health Services for certain can immediately impact first-generation students,” Kirk said. “To have a convenient family care clinic right here on campus is excellent for them. They can get in and take care of virtually any medical issue that you go to the doctor’s office. Also, the cost is going to be less here than when you go outside to your doctor’s office.

Dr. Mike Kirk
Dr. Mike Kirk

Counseling Services can help normalize the college experience. It’s not as easy to get students to come see us in Counseling Services. We know students can get anxious and concerned about succeeding in college. We can help normalize those feelings and give students strategies to help make them successful.”

UA Little Rock also supports students in several other ways. The office of Student Retention Initiatives coordinates peer mentoring, academic coaching, and tutoring to help all students thrive. Additionally, student researchers in the Signature Experience Program receive grant funding and are mentored by UA Little Rock faculty, helping prepare students for advanced study and improving persistence.

The Multicultural Center provides several mentoring programs that help empower, support, and assist African American students, Hispanic/Latinix students, and students of color in achieving their goal of earning a college degree. Students in these programs meet with career and professional mentors for regular support.

The university’s Learning Commons, which opened during the spring semester, provides a space where students have access to study space and tutoring assistance. The Learning Commons is the home of the Communication Skills Center, Math Assistance Center, University Writing Center, World Languages Center, and Trojan Tutoring.

“The Learning Commons is a great free resource available to students,” said Brandon Sollars, Learning Commons coordinator. “In this space, we can help students be successful by providing them with direct access to resources that can help them in their courses. Collectively our centers cover a large variety of subjects, everything from intro-level courses, math, writing and communication. We also provide a comfortable space for students to study individually or to study in groups. Here in the Learning Commons we aim to equip our students with the necessary skills and strategies that they need to be successful.”

Genesis Dominguez, a junior double major in Spanish and anthropology and first-generation student, helps many students in her work at the Communication Skill Center.

“The Communication Skill Center is a great opportunity for the students,” Dominguez said. “This center helps students do presentations, organize slide presentations, prepare them for a speech or interview, rehearse, organize ideas, and manage anxiety while speaking. It has a great team that is willing to help you every step of the way and will celebrate with you every win that you make.”

UA Little Rock has a number of student ambassador programs that create leadership opportunities for successful students who serve as tutors, mentors, and guides for their fellow students.

Learning Commons Coordinator Brandon Solllars and Michelle Malone and De’Ja Johnson, applied communication graduate students, give a presentation  In the Communications Skills Center in Ottenheimer Library. Photo by Ben Krain.
Learning Commons Coordinator Brandon Solllars and Michelle Malone and De’Ja Johnson, applied communication graduate students, give a presentation in the Communications Skills Center in Ottenheimer Library. Photo by Ben Krain.

“I intend to help create pathways for opportunities for other UA Little Rock students and specifically veterans, students of color, and nontraditional students to gain access to resources that hopefully will help generate more student success,” said Bryan Hernandez, a first-generation student and ambassador for the School of Business. “I hope to show that programs like the student ambassador program work! That they help to create a sense of community at UA Little Rock and build confidence in students that may deeply need it.”

Additional campus resources that UA Little Rock students will find useful include:

  • Trojan Works is an institutional work study program that provides on-campus employment opportunities as well as a unique experience that prepares students for success beyond graduation.
  • Career Services provides opportunities for students to prepare for careers through internships, job postings, career fairs, and career coaching.
  • Trojan Career Closet offers a career closet to help ensure students are dressed for interviews and internships. Each semester, students can select outfits to wear for professional settings.
  • Trojan Food Pantry is open to assist students, faculty, and staff with food needs they may have throughout the year.
  • The Military Student Support Center offers support for the university’s more than 700 Active Duty, Reservists, National Guard Members, Veterans, and their families utilize the center each year.