One university’s mission to provide support for first-gen students

From a unique early alert system to other robust supports, Dominican University is serving those who are true 'assets'.
By: | January 25, 2022
Photos courtesy of Dominican University

Glena Temple

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

Temple, whose parents never completed the journey through higher education, attended Allegheny College and admitted she struggled to fit in academically in her first year.

“I stumbled pretty seriously,” she says. “High school was pretty easy, but I got to college and I didn’t have study skills. I didn’t know how to access support and didn’t want to admit I was struggling because my parents were putting everything on the line for me to go. So I just quietly suffered.”

Temple eventually found her way – and all the way to the top post at Dominican – thanks in part to involvement in athletics, being raised in a college town and having parents who did understand the value of education, working for a company big on research, Eastman Kodak. Still, as a new face to higher ed, the challenges were real once she got on campus.

“No fault of Allegheny, I just didn’t have the tools,” she says. “My passion in my career has been that students shouldn’t have to look for the toolset. There shouldn’t be early-warning systems. There should be people who recognize a Glena in that moment who’s struggling and not knowing where to turn. My own lived experiences have led me to try to have a different system.”

That system, which she took over in the summer of 2021, has myriad strategies in place to offer assistance. One of the best is its own early-alert system, which identifies struggling students at 3, 6 and 9 months. Dominican also provides coaching help and other incentives that in turn has kept retention high, as well as solid financial aid packages and scholarships. It also views low-income, first-gen students as assets, not risks. For its transformative efforts with them, it has been named the No. 1 value school in Illinois and No. 1 for social mobility by U.S. News and World Report.

But persistence has been a struggle for first-gen students across higher ed, with more than half still not making it through to completion. In a wide-ranging conversation, Temple discusses some of Dominican’s work to offset those statistics while offering some tips on how to make their experience more fulfilling.

What makes first-gen students unique?

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

What are some of the simple barriers you encountered that first-gen students face?

Not knowing how you should navigate internships. Not knowing how important study abroad might be. Not knowing how to network. Even learning how to ask someone to go to coffee to learn more about an industry was not a skill set. We have to ensure that these opportunities are available. That’s been a limitation of higher ed for quite some time. We have all these wonderful experiences for those who know to reach for them, or who can afford to reach for them. But often those that can’t or don’t know are the ones who would benefit the most.

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

I am a typical first-gen student in that my parents made a lot of sacrifices to be able to make education a priority. I felt a great sense of responsibility. I knew that they wished that we would be able to achieve what they couldn’t. My mom set that expectation of an advanced degree, and I didn’t want to get knocked off that course. I’m sure some of those things [being in a college town, the research being done at Kodak] influenced me, which speaks to all of us as college presidents. We have to understand that it’s not just the students we serve but the communities we’re embedded in. We have an obligation to help students understand the opportunities.

How has the pandemic played a part in your institution serving first-gen students?

A lot of our students live at home and live with multigeneration families. The Latino community has been hard hit during the pandemic, so we rightly took a careful approach. Many of their parents and families are essential workers. We had a vaccine mandate early. We have a commitment to walk with each student on their journey and talk to each one about their fears. That care and intentionality has made it so our COVID cases have been very low on campus. I can’t take any credit. But I’m incredibly proud of how Dominican has handled the pandemic.

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

Early notification systems to identify those who have might have technology limitations, food insecurity or housing insecurity. Working with faculty so we know early who’s not showing up to class or who’s struggling. Working on the sense of vocation, so that they’re connected to a sense of purpose going forward. If they don’t have that, it’s easy for them to say, is this worth it? Student emergency funds. You don’t want someone to drop out because the car they depend on needs $300 in repairs. If you look at this lifelong investment that families and students are making, how do we overcome those small items so they can persist? And then how to get them launched into the world, the real intentionality of the career preparedness program – how to apply for jobs, how to create a resume, how to interview?

Cost is obviously a huge barrier, so what is Dominican doing to assist?

We work hard to keep our costs as low as possible. Knowing that you serve a first-gen, lower-income population, that’s essential. We still know 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 only work-study opportunities through the federal government, but realizing our student body can’t make that choice between being the president of that club and their paid job. We’ve embraced more online courses because it helps them with their work.

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

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