To Boldly Go
- By Shannon O'Connor
- February 1st, 2010
For many students, entering college or university after high school is not a choice; it’s just what they do. They — and their families — know that a formal education continues to the completion of undergraduate or graduate degrees, depending on the students’ career plans or simply their desire to continue to learn, research, and grow.
Then there are the students who are the first in their families to pursue post-secondary opportunities. These first-generation students face challenges that are different from those of students who come from families where a college education is considered the norm. They enter college without the benefit of the advice and experience of parents or older siblings who have gone to school before them. Some of their peers may ridicule them for their choice. They may feel pressure to succeed in a “strange new world” where their classmates seem to instinctively know the ropes. They are usually from low-income backgrounds, and are at higher risk for academic failure and dropping out.
Recognizing the challenges of first-generation students, many schools offer them tailored support, including orientation and mentoring programs, tutoring and other forms of academic assistance, summer programs before freshman year to introduce them to college, financial aid, and more, including housing programs. At the University of Cincinnati (UC), first-generation students are offered the Gen-1 Theme House, which opened in August 2008; a 24-bed, off-campus residence designed to provide first-year, first-generation, Pell-eligible, full-time University of Cincinnati freshmen with the support needed to make a successful transition from high school to college with a safe, orderly, and highly structured environment in which to live, learn, and work.
A Success Story
UC’s Gen-1 Theme House had 15 residents for its own freshman year. For the current year, the house is full, with 24 students and two resident advisors. About 18 months into the program, “it has definitely exceeded our expectations,” said Dr. Steffi Cappel, executive director of Partner for Achieving School Success (PASS), a center in the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services at the University that was established to provide university-community partnerships and outreach programs that promote and enhance positive educational outcomes for students. “Things have worked out tremendously.”
So well, in fact, that the program will be expanded next year, and recruitment is underway for new program participants. A second Gen-1 House is planned for next fall, allowing the program to triple its size from its original 2008 enrollment.
Signing on the Dotted Line
For most freshman residents enrolling in the Gen-1 House initiative, it’s a culture shock, but one they’re willing and determined to weather. Prospective residents must successfully complete both the University and the Gen-1 Theme House application and admissions processes, including an essay explaining why they are a good fit for the House.
In addition, they must sign a contract, committing to abide by all Gen-1 House policies and procedures. Policies include curfews, quiet hours, restrictions on guests, and no smoking. Residents must remain drug- and alcohol-free. They cannot work more than 20 hours per week while UC is in session. Attendance at and full participation in all Gen-1 Theme House programs and activities is mandatory unless otherwise noted. Residents are required to take full advantage of all Gen-1 House services, including academic sessions and support services deemed necessary and appropriate. Residents must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.25 each quarter and attain a cumulative GPA of 2.33 by the end of Winter Quarter in order to preserve their good standing. Mentoring and tutoring and study sessions — as well as family programming — are among the support systems that are included in this housing community, according to Program Coordinator Judy Mause.
The rules and regulations present a regimented framework that most likely has not been a part of Gen-1 House residents’ lives. This structured environment can chafe — and does, for some — but these motivated students recognize the importance of the rules.
“We’re all going to have to face rules when we get older — getting to work on time, managing our time,” resident Isa Shakir was quoted as saying in a recent Cincinnati Enquirer
article about the Gen-1 Theme House. “When we get out, we’re going to have the structure in place to deal with that.”
“By signing that contract and walking into the dorm for eight or nine weeks, we all have reached the next level of maturity,” said 19-year-old Tracy Steagall, in the same Cincinnati Enquirer
report. “We had a choice to be here or to be in another dorm. We didn’t have to do this.”
Location, Location, Location
The facility that is the Gen-1 Theme House is part of Stratford Heights Student Housing, a traditional English-style Tudor neighborhood that first opened in fall 2005 as part of UC’s attempt to re-develop the surrounding areas of campus.
Stratford Heights houses 693 residents in suite-style housing set on 10.5 acres across a busy street from the main campus. The property is comprised of 19 houses, as well as the 152-bed Tower Hall. The diverse student community offers living facilities for fraternities and sororities, religious organizations, academic departments, and educational focus groups, as well as non-group affiliated houses. The Stratford Heights Community Center offers a fitness center, convenience store, and banquet facilities.
As an off-campus property, the Stratford Heights project was originally managed by an outside management company, but beginning the fall 2009 quarter, the University took control of management responsibilities for the neighborhood. For the Gen-1 Theme House’s first year, students paid rent to the management company, and the house was subject to that company’s facility policies. Now, the Gen-1 students pay housing fees directly to the University.
As part of a housing community, Gen-1 Theme House residents are living next door to other houses that do not have the same rules for curfew, overnight guests, alcohol, and various other contractual agreements that Gen-1 student residents have accepted, Mause pointed out. This means the Gen-1 residents need to be more introspective and self-enabling, and trust that they are among like-minded people.
The Goal of Immersion
“The research speaks for itself as to the value of embedding yourself as a residental student at a university,” Mause said. “Just the exposure itself is valuable.” These first-generation students are navigating a totally new world, she said, and one of the goals of the Gen-1 Theme House is to offer these resident students everything they need to access the wealth of resources available to them at UC. The statistics show that a large percentage of first-generation students are not successful past their freshman year, Dr. Cappel said, “so something different had to be done.”
Each Gen-1 student “has to be an active participant, and a willing participant. They trust that the parameters exist for a reason,” Mause said. Because the House’s program is highly structured, “we almost do a ‘negative sell’” to prospective students, stressing to candidates that they must be absolutely sure this program is what they want. “We give students permission to make their own decisions,” she said, “and once they choose it, they own it. These are very courageous young people.”