You First at VCU

Grant expands resources for first-gen students

The Division of Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success at Virginia Commonwealth University has been awarded a $200,000 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to expand the You First at VCU student program into the You First at VCU, First-Generation Student Success and Research Center to include faculty engagement and development.

For the past decade, VCU has been focused on improving educational equity by addressing the needs of underrepresented students, noted by the significant increase in four- and six-year graduation rates for all students and the reduction of graduation gaps of African American, Latinx and low-income (Pell Grant) students. Nearly one-third of VCU’s undergraduate students will be the first in their families to graduate from a university. VCU first-generation students are more frequently from underrepresented or lower socioeconomic backgrounds: Sixty-eight percent are minorities compared to 54% of undergraduates More than 50% are underrepresented minorities compared to 37% of undergraduates, and 55% of VCU first-generation students are low-income compared to 31% of all degree-seeking undergraduates.

Since 2016, You First at VCU has worked to develop a sense of belonging, academic skills, confidence and a community network among first-generation students. While these are core pillars of student success, the learning environment is also an important component. The duPont funding provides the necessary resources to advance faculty engagement designed to foster rigorous instructional experiences that lead to positive student outcomes, says Tomikia LeGrande, Ed.D., vice president for strategy, enrollment management and student success.

“The evolving higher-education landscape suggests that we cannot rely solely on prior research to inform solutions to improve student outcomes among first-generation students,” LeGrande says. “Through the newly established You First at VCU, First-Generation Student Success and Research Center, we will create environments in which new empirical research is generated, tested and shared to create more equitable educational environments for first-generation college students by addressing the social, academic and financial barriers that prevent students from timely degree completion.”

The duPont funding will establish:

  • You First Faculty Fellow Program to offer fellowships to faculty who are motivated to advance the center’s mission. Faculty fellows will play a leadership role in faculty development programming and research opportunities. They will serve as liaisons for the center, departments and faculty.
  • First Gen Ambassadors Program, a faculty learning community that will offer peer-led groups of faculty, staff and graduate students a collaborative structure to provide encouragement, support and reflection on the teaching, learning and developmental needs of faculty working to engage first-generation students.
  • First-Generation Research Grants to faculty interested in engaging in research to explore various facets of student success, which hold important implications for first-generation student success.
  • Faculty development opportunities will also be sponsored by the center with specific focus on innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

“The ultimate goal of the project is the success of first-generation students at VCU and across the nation,” says Daphne Rankin, Ph.D. (M.S.’88/H&S; Ph.D.’04/H&S), associate vice president for summer studies and special programs. “While the funding is directed toward the support of faculty — our students are the ultimate beneficiaries.”

A version of this article was previously published by VCU News.