Sarah Geegan


College: Undergraduate Education

First Scholars Program Surpasses Expectations in Success, Retention

Published: Mar 4, 2013

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 4, 2013) When UK students Brittany Hurd, Nisa Bedwell, Tabitha Wilson and Nate Yates stepped onto UK's campus for the first time, they did so not only as first-year students, but as the first people in their families to go to college.  


As participants in UK's First Scholars Program, these students receive scholarships, peer mentoring and individual strategic plans for success from the program that focuses specifically on first-generation students. Funded through a grant from the Texas-based Suder Foundation and now in its third year, the First Scholars Program has blown expectations out of the water in terms of both the retention rates and the grade point averages of the students it supports. 


Statistically, first-generation college students, who represent one in five incoming UK freshmen, lag behind the general college population in graduation and retention rates. According to a 2012 UK Office of Institutional Research report, the retention rates for general first generation students at the beginning of their junior year were 59.4, 63.5 and 61.4 percent for cohorts that entered UK in the fall of 2007, 2008, and 2009, respectively.


Of the current junior class of First Scholar students (fall 2010), 85 percent registered for the 2012 fall semester. The sophomore class (fall 2011) cohort of First Scholars boasted a 95 percent retention rate going into the fall semester of their sophomore year.


In terms of both sophomore and junior year retention, the First Scholars rates were more than 10 points greater than those of the non-first generation population and approximately 20 points greater than the general first-generation population in each case.


"One of the things in my research that has stuck with me is that if you remove all other factors — socioeconomic, gender and ethnicity — just the fact that a student is a first generation puts that student at risk," Matthew Deffendall, director of First Generation Initiatives said. "The research shows that first-generation students lack the 'college student role' — the knowledge of how to make it in the system. They are missing that skill set and support mechanism."


The First Scholars Program specifically addresses these skill sets and support mechanisms. Students work directly with a program coordinator and peer mentors, and they engage in focused programming that addresses social, emotional and financial needs. Participants maintain contact with the program for four years and transition to leadership roles that support incoming students in a variety of fashions, from becoming peer mentors, to completing service projects with new First Scholars.


“What impresses me about the First Scholars program is how well designed it is to provide resources for students and establish expectations for success," Benjamin C. Withers, interim associate provost for Undergraduate Education, said. "The program enables students to identify their strengths and weaknesses and helps them develop individual plans and goals."


Martina Martin, First Scholars program coordinator oversees the First Scholars selection process and ensures a smooth transition to the university upon selection. She also monitors, tracks, and supports the academic progress of each First Scholar.


"The First Scholars program is empowering in many ways, but the most significant part of the program for me has been the support," sophomore Nisa Bedwell said. "I always have someone I can go to if I am unsure about how to access a resource on campus or when to apply for something important. I would usually go to my family for advice, but seeing as how I am first generation, my parents were just as lost as I was. First Scholars became a vital support in helping me navigate the college process."


Freshman Brittany Hurd said that the program has fueled her resolve to obtain a degree, not only to build her own success, but also to provide an example for other first-generation students.


"With the support of First Scholars and my will-power and determination to accomplish my dreams, I will prove everyone wrong who doesn't believe in me," Hurd said. "I will set an example for every person who doesn't think that they can attend college and obtain a degree because of where they are from or their financial background."


Junior Tabitha Wilson said that the program has prepared her for life after college, and how a college degree translates into the "real world." She is thankful because she had always wanted to attend UK.


Freshman Nate Yates said that the program has become his second family.


"The idea that one day I will get to say that I was the first person in my family to ever go to college is something that used to scare me, but since I have been in this program it is something that I am now looking forward to," Yates said. "Being a First Scholar means that I am part of a college family who wants nothing more than for me to succeed and accomplish my dream of being the first person in my family to graduate."


Students apply for the First Scholars Program in high school; more than 150 students apply each year, and 20 are selected. The program is currently reviewing applications for the 2013 cohort of scholars. For more information, click here.




MEDIA CONTACT: Sarah Geegan, (859) 257-5365;

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