RU First Celebrates Accomplishments of Students who are Pioneers in Higher Education

Tuesday, February 13, 2018
A student speaks at a reception for RU First

This week marks the launch of a new effort at Rockhurst University hoping to put the spotlight on a group of students who rarely see it.

First-generation students are a growing part of the University’s student population, but one would not likely notice by just looking around — first-generation students come from all walks of life.

That’s partly why Ashley Halter, M.A., the University’s success coach, said she wanted to find a way to celebrate the accomplishments of those who represent the first in their families to go to college. On Monday, the University launched RU First, a new initiative that celebrates and recognizes the accomplishments of students who are the first in their families to get a college education — a group that Halter said makes up approximately 20 percent of the most recent freshman class.

“We know that our first-generation numbers are growing,” she said. “And that’s definitely an opportunity to both celebrate their success and build on it.”

RU First kicked off Monday with a celebration in the Massman Hall Gallery, featuring reflections from some of the University’s first-generation students and a Hall of Inspiration showcasing stories from faculty, staff and students who are also first generation. These stories will be on view through Wednesday.

One of Monday’s speakers was Alexandra Meyer, a Rockhurst student who said being the first in her family to graduate college is not just about earning a degree.

“It is also the pride in surviving the circumstances that your life, and your family have lived in order to get to this point,” she said. “Everybody experiences the injustices of the world in different ways, and the overcoming of those injustices are what really make being a first-generation student special. Whether it be that you are the first because your family immigrated, and you bare the burden of their survival story. Or whether it is because your family and you lived a cycle of poverty or abuse.”

Halter said the participants of the Hall of Inspiration convey a range of experiences through writings and reflections. She hopes they will provide new perspectives for members of the University community about what it’s like to be a first-generation student. Because, while those students don’t look any different from others around them, they do face what in many cases are unique challenges.  On average nationwide, Halter said first-generation students have lower graduation and retention rates, and without relatives who have shared the experience, navigating processes like how to register for classes or how to apply for financial aid can be confusing. The students might also have self-doubt as the pressure of family expectations weigh on them, causing them to question whether they even belong in college. It’s a feeling that Meyer, who works more than 40 hours most weeks to pay for her education, said she’s had.

“I struggled to understand how to fill out the FAFSA or find the resources to help pay for college,” she said.

RU First, Halter said, is meant to help students navigate the paperwork, answer questions where needed, and help connect the students to the Rockhurst community

“We really want to tell those students that they do belong here, they do deserve to be here, and that everyone here wants to support you on the quest to graduation,” Halter said.

In the fall 2018 semester, Halter said the University will launch the RU First Academy, the newest in the RU Academies which will give first-generation students both resources and leadership opportunities under three different banners — connecting, belonging and celebrating — tailored to the students’ success both at RU and after.

“The Jesuit core value of cura personalis is really at the heart of RU First,” Halter said. “We want to be able to care for all of our students and help them succeed, and that of course includes first-generation students.”

The range of effort might also serve to encourage future first-generation students, something that Meyer said she hopes to do herself.

“My advice to other first-generation students is to do it,” she said. “It is beyond worth it, and you will succeed, you will figure out the money, don't get scared and abandon the idea.”