W&L Celebrates First-Generation College Students The university recently celebrated National First-Generation College Student Day to recognize student achievement and remind the community about support resources for first-generation and low-income students at W&L.
The Elrod Commons Living Room at Washington and Lee University is always a welcoming place, but it was especially inviting on the morning of Nov. 8 as faculty, staff and students gathered among blue-and-white balloons to celebrate National First-Generation College Student Day.
The occasion is a chance for colleges and universities across the country to recognize college students who are the first in their immediate family to pursue a four-year degree. The W&L celebration, sponsored by the Office of Inclusion and Engagement, included piles of delicious donuts, piping hot beverages and fun swag such as W&L cups and stickers with inspirational phrases like “Do something today that your future self will thank you for.” There was also a large display board covered with the photos and names of faculty and staff who identify as first-generation college graduates, and a spot for others to add their names.
Dozens of community members swung through the Monday morning event to grab coffee and a donut and recognize first-generation student achievements.
“I think first-generation college students are so incredibly ambitious and resourceful,” said Tammy Futrell, dean for diversity, inclusion and student engagement. “Many have had to navigate this college process alone or with loved ones who didn’t necessarily always understand the process. Now younger generations in their families can see that a college education is possible for them, as well.”
National First-Generation College Student Day was established in 2017 by the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the Center for First-Generation Student Success. That same year, Kiki Spiezio ’17 started a group at W&L called the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) with help from Taylor Reese ’19 and Edwin Castellanos ’20. Spiezio drew inspiration from similar programs at other universities with the intention of filling gaps and addressing small needs not covered by W&L’s Angel Fund, which provides students with temporary financial assistance in times of family emergencies. The vision for FLIP included establishing scholarships for students to participate in college experiences such as Greek life, Fancy Dress, Mock Con, travel, interviews and conferences.
Since then, the group has been renamed the Low-Income First-Generation Team (LIFT), which carries on FLIP’s initiatives and has created additional programs. Current LIFT president Tiffani Thomason ’22 said the group still offers financial assistance and maintains a lending library to make textbooks more affordable for students, and the OIE has taken over maintenance of a food pantry that FLIP started to provide sustenance outside dining hall hours. In addition, the group started a laptop lending program for which the university purchased a number of new laptops.
“The administration at our school has been so incredibly supportive,” Thomason said. “You can tell they care, and they have taken over a lot of the initiatives to make them more sustainable. From what I’ve seen, a lot of other schools do not have that support from the administration.”
Thomason said that support is important because while college can be a lonely place for all students, it can be especially difficult for low-income and first-generation students.
“I think part of it is when you are the first person in your family that’s gone to college or finances are tight so you are putting all of your resources into this one basket, it feels like there is a lot riding on this,” she said, “and it feels like if you take one wrong step things are going to fall apart and you are going to disappoint the people in your family that are cheering you on. In addition to that, when you are a first-generation student, you tend to not know the ins and outs of college as well, so that, added to the weight and significance of it all, can be very overwhelming for students.”
That’s why she and other members of LIFT, as well as first-generation faculty and staff, care so much about being there to help current students.
“Our main goal is to be a community where first-generation, low-income students feel like they are not alone,” she said, “like there are other people like me here and people like me who have succeeded in the college environment, and I can do that, too.”
If you are a first-generation and/or low-income student, or a faculty or staff member who is a first-generation college graduate, and you would like to get involved in LIFT, please email Tiffani Thomason at firstname.lastname@example.org.