Simplified: Southeast Technical College received national recognition last month for its work in supporting first-generation students. Here's a look at how they're helping these students succeed through peer mentorships.

Why it matters

  • More than 600 of Southeast Tech's nearly 2,500 students are first-generation, meaning they're the first in their family to go to college, and nationally about 1 in 3 college students is first-generation, according to Marcella Prokop, director of access and workforce opportunity.
  • The college started a pilot program last year to connect new first-generation students with students who've been in their shoes. That program has served 20 people, but the goal is to serve many more and encourage businesses to offer more mentorship as well, Prokop said.
  • That includes students like Breanna Clark, who is on track to earn a computer support certificate this spring. Clark's experience in the mentorship program inspired her to found a Mindfulness Club with the college to help form even more connections.
"Going to college means a better, more secure life for me and my family," Clark said. "I plan to use this financial stability to support my family as they age and help the wider community."

Tell me more

Working with first generation students has shown Prokop the importance of mentorship, both from peers and from businesses.

"Businesses can support students in understanding that they're hungry for experience," she said. "If businesses can offer that (mentorship), they're going to have more engaged employees."

Mentorship is especially important to first-generation students because they often do not have a family member who can help them through things like the college application process or applying for financial aid.

  • Southeast Tech's peer mentorship program pairs first-generation students with someone who just went through what they're going through and can offer specific advice.
"If you are one of those students who has neither parent who attended college, you're really out there navigating it all on your own," Prokop said.

In addition to the mentorship program, Southeast Tech offers regular programming to connect these students with resources about financial literacy, wellness, advocacy and more.

What happens next?

Southeast Tech plans to analyze the data from the first couple years of the peer mentorship program to track retention and graduation rates among these students.

The hope is to continue to grow and scale first-generation mentorship and programming each year moving forward, Prokop said.

  • That includes dispelling misconceptions about first generation students. Clark said she's heard first-generation students described as passive or lacking determination.
"A lot of us have seen our parents go through so many hardships," Clark said. "It's true we might struggle with confidence or deal with confusion others don't, but at the end of the day, we want to make good on our commitment and finish (school) for ourselves and those we love."