Marcia Layton Turner
Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

Officials at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville recently turned their retention attention to persistence and graduation rates of specific groups of students.

Students at greater risk of dropping out had some common characteristics, including greater financial need, being academically underprepared and being the first in their families to attend college.

And the percentage of first-generation students at the university has risen to more than one-quarter of the approximately 2,000 freshmen. So officials developed SIUE 1st, a support network designed specifically for first-generation college students on campus.

The goal of SIUE 1st is to help students navigate the college environment and connect with peers and campus assistance. Comprising programs, support services and an assigned peer mentor, SIUE 1st is in pilot phase, currently serving its inaugural group of 22 freshmen.

The two big keys to the program are mentors and weekly required study hours, says Kara Shustrin, a program specialist in student affairs responsible for SUIE 1st. Six peer mentors, all active and successful first-generation college students, are critical to the success of the program.

“The No. 1 predictor of social integration is peer connections,” says Shustrin, adding that these relationships have a positive impact on retention. The peer mentors meet one-on-one with their students at least once a month and also offer support through Facebook and motivational group text messages.

Many first-generation students enter college without strong study habits.

SIUE 1st aims to provide these new skills through five required study hours each week, which are proctored by the peer mentors. SIUE 1st students also attend two academic and career-related activities per semester.

Participants who meet all the requirements and are in good academic standing receive $50 in Cougar Bucks during the first week of the following semester.

There are already signs that SIUE 1st is a success. As a group, the program participants had lower average ACT scores coming in to college, yet they achieved slightly higher GPAs than first-generation freshmen who aren’t participating in the program, says Shustrin.

“It’s easy to be anonymous at a larger school,” she adds. “Our goal is to get [first-generation students] connected.”