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A University’s Mission to Support First-Generation Students |

From a unique early warning system to other robust supports, Dominican University serves those who are true “assets”.

Photos courtesy of Dominican University

Temple of Glena

First-generation students at Dominican University are welcomed by many empathetic voices, including President Glena Temple, who understands the challenges of completing a four-year degree.

Temple, whose parents never completed college, attended Allegheny College and admitted she struggled to fit in academically during her freshman year.

“I tripped pretty badly,” she said. “Secondary school was quite easy, but I got to university and didn’t have the skills to study. I didn’t know how to access support and I didn’t want to admit that I was struggling because my parents were risking everything for me to leave. So I just suffered quietly.

Temple eventually found her way — and to the top job at Dominican — thanks in part to her involvement in athletics, growing up in a college town, and having parents who understood the value of education, working for a major research company, Eastman Kodak. Still, as the new face of higher education, the challenges were real once she arrived on campus.

“It’s not Allegheny’s fault, I just didn’t have the tools,” she says. “My passion in my career has been that students don’t have to search for the tool set. There should be no early warning systems. There should be people who recognize a Glena in that moment who is struggling and doesn’t know where to turn. My own lived experiences led me to try to have a different system.

This system, which she took over in the summer of 2021, put in place a myriad of strategies to offer help. One of the best is its own early warning system, which identifies struggling pupils at 3, 6 and 9 months. Dominican also provides coaching assistance and other incentives which, in turn, have maintained a high retention rate, as well as strong financial aid programs and scholarships. He also sees low-income first-generation students as assets, not risks. For its transformational efforts with them, it was named the #1 Worth School in Illinois and #1 for Social Mobility by US News and World Report.

But persistence has been a struggle for first-generation students in higher education, with more than half have still not reached their goal. In a wide-ranging conversation, Temple discusses some of Dominican’s work to offset those stats while offering some tips on how to make their experience more fulfilling.

What makes first generation students unique?

Their work ethic, desire to achieve their goals and the passion they bring are energizing. Their dreams and accomplishments are not only theirs, but also those of their family. It is a huge privilege. We know from the data that students who have graduated from college have higher earning potential. We know the value it brings to lifelong learning. When you haven’t had that experience through your family members, you don’t have the same networks to navigate through. We have to make sure that we have the supports and that we don’t make assumptions. If you wait until two-thirds of the semester, it’s too late. So have real intentionality, clear processes.

What are some simple barriers that you have encountered that first-generation students face?

Not knowing how to navigate internships. Not knowing how important study abroad might be. Not knowing how to network. Even learning to ask someone to go to a coffee shop to learn about an industry wasn’t a skill set. We need to make sure these opportunities are available. This has been a limitation of higher education for some time. We have all these wonderful experiences for those who to know to reach them, or who can afford to reach them. But often those who can’t or don’t know are the ones who would benefit the most.

Tell us about your personal experience moving from high school to college.

I’m a typical first-generation student in that my parents made a lot of sacrifices so they could make education a priority. I felt a great sense of responsibility. I knew they wished we could achieve what they couldn’t. My mother set this expectation of a higher degree, and I didn’t want to be eliminated from this course. I’m sure some of these things [being in a college town, the research being done at Kodak] influenced me, which concerns all of us as university presidents. We must understand that it is not just the students we serve, but the communities in which we are embedded. We have an obligation to help students understand the opportunities.

How has the pandemic played a role in your institution serving first-generation students?

Many of our students live at home and live with multi-generational families. The Latino community has been hit hard during the pandemic, so we’ve rightly taken a cautious approach. Many of their parents and families are essential workers. We had a vaccine mandate at the start. We are committed to accompanying each student on their journey and to talking to each of their fears. This care and intentionality has resulted in our COVID cases being very low on campus. I cannot take any credit. But I’m incredibly proud of how Dominican has handled the pandemic.

What are some of the key strategies institutions should implement to help first-generation students?

Early notification systems to identify those who may have technological limitations, food insecurity or housing insecurity. Work with faculty so we know early on who is not showing up to class or who is struggling. Work on the sense of vocation, so that they are connected to a sense of the future. If they don’t have that, it’s easy for them to say, is it worth it? Student emergency fund. You don’t want someone to give up because the car they depend on needs $300 in repairs. If you look at this lifetime investment that families and students make, how do we overcome these small things so that they can persist? And then how do you launch them into the world, the real intentionality of the career preparation program – how do you apply for jobs, how do you create a resume, how do you interview?

Cost is obviously a huge barrier, so what is the Dominican Republic doing to help?

We work hard to keep our costs as low as possible. Knowing that you serve a low-income, first-generation population is critical. We always know that college is expensive. So we do a lot of fundraising for scholarships. We work hard on a lot of paid positions on campus. So not just work-study opportunities through the federal government, but realizing that our student body can’t make that choice between being the president of this club and their paid employment. We have adopted more online courses because it helps them in their work.

What are some of the goals for next year for Dominican?

Every college president would probably say growth. I think we have to. But the role we play in social mobility in markets is something we have to build on. And to become more of a national example for other schools, to help them understand the role they too can play.

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