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Emory program for first-generation college students set to graduate first participants

By S.A. Reid | Emory Report | May 8, 2018

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Emory alumna and staff member Leslie Wingate (center), a mentor for 1915 Scholars, meets with graduating seniors Jalyn Radziminski (right) and Ayana Bohannon (left). Photo by Tina Chang.

Amid the pomp and circumstance of next week’s Commencement ceremonies, a special program that aids first-generation college students at Emory University will graduate its first cohort of participants.

The 1915 Scholars inaugural class of 17 students will receive degrees May 14, after four years of receiving support through an initiative managed by Campus Life's Office of Student Success Programs and Services (OSSPS) in collaboration with other university organizations, including the Emory Alumni Association and the Office of Undergraduate Education. 

“Our graduating scholars deserve special recognition for reaching the finish line against extraordinary odds,” says OSSPS Director Adrienne Slaughter, praising these students’ “phenomenal achievements.”

The program began with an idea from Michele Davis 87C, a member of the Emory Alumni Board, and was established in 2014 with the Emory Alumni Association working closely with Campus Life.

The initiative represents the university’s customized approach to addressing the specific needs of its first-generation students. Since inception, the program has worked to smooth these students' college experience by supporting them in adjusting to college life, completing their studies, and accessing university resources and services.

As program participants, scholars experience a specialized orientation, receive customized academic advising and participate in structured social and networking events. They also receive tiered mentoring from peers, graduate students and alumni who form a family cluster of support and meet regularly with the scholars throughout the academic year.

The graduation of these 1915 Scholars reflects the progress Emory is making in recruiting and retaining talented, historically underrepresented students who are beating the odds as the first members of their families to pursue higher education. According to research, first-generation, low-income students are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their peers who have at least one parent who has completed college. 

That’s due to the unique challenges first-generation students face, including psychological, academic and financial issues. In addition, these students, most of whom tend to be racial or ethnic minorities, are more likely to experience homesickness, guilt, fear and loneliness, as well as the imposter syndrome, which is characterized by feelings of inadequacy despite obvious success, according to Slaughter.

Jayla Palmer, a media studies and African American studies major, credits the 1915 Scholars Program with helping her overcome anxiety and other problems she experienced as a first-generation, African American student.

“1915 was pivotal and important to my success at Emory,” says the graduating senior who plans to work after graduation as a marketing project manager. “The program connected me with students who shared my anxieties and gave me a wonderful mentor. She helped and supported me personally, professionally and academically.”

Multiple layers of mentoring

Palmer’s experience is echoed by graduating senior Jalyn Radziminski, another 1915 Scholar. An honor student majoring in linguistics and interdisciplinary studies, Radziminski has served in numerous volunteer student leadership roles at Emory, including sorority president and representative to the University Senate. 

Among her many honors and activities, she is the 2018 undergraduate recipient of the Marion Luther Brittain Award, the university’s highest student honor, which will be presented at Commencement.

“I struggled with a lot of issues, including health, but the program provided the grounding for me and other students to succeed,” says Radziminski, a peer mentor in the program. “Without the 1915 Scholars, I could not have been as engaged in student leadership and service as I was – and I might not even be graduating.” 

Peer mentors are an essential element of the 1915 Scholars Program. Like other mentors, Radziminski drew on her own experiences to assist students who entered the program after her. One was Kenny Igarza. For this junior, with a double major in neuroscience and international studies, Radziminski has been an extraordinary inspiration.

“I’ll really think of her a lot,” he says of his friend and former peer mentor. “I kind of looked up to her. When I didn’t know how to navigate the college, she provided that help.”

Isabel Garcia, an alumni mentor and 1999 Emory Law graduate, couldn’t be prouder of her two graduating mentees Xiqin Huang and Tak Chi Wan, both of whom she described as bilingual Chinese American students from “humble” backgrounds.

“They are so impressive,” Garcia says. “One is graduating from business school and the other from nursing school. They came to Emory and not only are successful in graduating but also are at the top of their class. The world is their oyster.”

All three of Leslie Wingate’s mentees will receive their diplomas May 14. Wingate, a 1982 Emory graduate, has mentored Palmer, Radziminski and their fellow scholar Ayana Bohannon since the program’s inception. A sociology major considering a teaching career, Bohannon has been active in a number of student organizations during her Emory experience and serves currently as leader and choreographer for the Zuri Dance Troop.

“They are just wonderful,” says Wingate, director of campus and community relations for Emory Libraries and Information Technology Services. “I have enjoyed every minute of my relationship with them and have gotten more out of it than they have. I’m so impressed by the fact that they are first-generation and that they are graduating from a top university. I could not be prouder of them.”