Students who are the first in their families to get a college education carry more on their shoulders than just backpacks loaded with laptops and binders. In addition to the typical demands of higher education and preparing for a career, first-generation students bear the weight of knowing they are role models for younger family members and a source of intense pride for parents and grandparents who were unable to attain that goal themselves. There are other challenges, too, as most first-gen students are not provided the financial resources and other types of support that are key to college success.

But for first-gen students like Tiera Moore, being at Kent State has helped to lighten the load.

“As the oldest in my family, it was a lot of pressure to ask myself, ‘Can I do this big thing that my parents didn’t do?’ But I need to do this so I can show my siblings that they can do it, too,” says Moore, who is a senior with a double major in political science and English, as well as a minor in pre-law. 

She grew up in Salem, Ohio, and although she originally wanted to attend an out-of-state college, she also applied to Ohio colleges. “Kent State just was the right fit,” Moore says of her decision to enroll. “The location was close enough to have support from my family back home, but still be away and have a college experience of living on campus. Also, Kent State offered me a lot of scholarships and had a lot more resources for me as an in-state student.”

first-generation students

Even so, she sometimes struggled with finances. “My sophomore year, I had a bill that I had to pay, but I didn’t have the funds to do it,” Moore says. When someone from Kent State’s Student Support Services noticed the unpaid bill and reached out to ask how they could help her, “I just broke down crying,” she says. They connected her to emergency funding that allowed her to stay in school and thrive.

And thrive she has. Her sophomore year, she got involved in Undergraduate Student Government. She was first elected as its director of governmental affairs and later as USG president for 2020-21—an academic year in which, among other challenges, she has taken the lead during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is working with the university to turn the situation we had with [racist messages on] the Rock into a learning experience that can better our campus in the future,” Moore says. “I wanted to bridge the gap on our campus to have all students realize the importance of diversity and know how to make Kent State a welcoming place.”

She’s also a manager at the Kent State Writing Commons (the writing center on the Kent Campus) and a member of the English Honors Society.

Most first-generation students are not provided the financial resources and other types of support that are key to college success.

In addition, Moore has taken advantage of many Kent State programs that have offered her opportunities for growth as a person and as a scholar. When she first came to Kent State, she went through the cultural orientation program Kupita Transiciones, which connected her with other students of color and the staff at the Student Multicultural Center.

“It was the staff in the SMC who encouraged and helped me run for student government, even though it was hard,” she says. “I’m only the third Black woman to be student body president at Kent State.”

At the end of her freshmen year, Moore went on a study abroad trip to Portugal and Spain led by geography professor David Kaplan, PhD, who is currently Moore’s advisor as she writes her honors thesis on Spanish regionalism and its effects on the response to COVID-19. 

“I formed a strong relationship with Dr. Kaplan because we have very similar research interests, even though he’s in a different field from me,” Moore says. “I always tell students not to limit themselves to just their area of study because professors all over campus have similar, overlapping interests with you.”

During the summer of 2020, Moore was able to assist Kaplan in a virtual research project for a book he is writing about nationalism. She worked on the project as part of an eight-week summer research internship provided through the McNair Scholars Program. The McNair Summer Research Institute typically includes graduate school preparation workshops, graduate school visits and conference presentations, as well as research opportunities. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 institute was all virtual, even the grad school visits.

The Kent State McNair Scholars Program, which Moore is enrolled in, is a federally funded program with a mission to encourage and prepare first-generation and underrepresented college students for post-graduate studies.

McNair Students

The program is named for Black astronaut and physicist Ronald E. McNair, who died on Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch from the Kennedy Space Center. Congress provided funding for the McNair Scholars Program after his death.

Moore, who once worried that she might not be up to the challenge of being the first in her family to earn a college degree, now plans to attend law school after graduation in spring 2021.

“Kent State provided so much help for me as a student, especially as a first-generation student and as a student of color,” she says. “I felt that really showed the university’s dedication to diversity and their awareness that certain students do need help to go to school.”

Kent State recognized as a First-gen Forward Institution

First-Gen Forward Institution logoRecently, the Center for First-generation Student Success recognized Kent State’s commitment to improving the experiences and advancing outcomes for first-generation students by designating the university as a 2021-22 First-gen Forward Institution.

“Through the application process, it was evident that Kent State is not only taking steps to serve first-generation students, but also is prepared to make a long-term commitment and employ strategies that foster an environment of success for this important population,” says Sarah E. Whitley, PhD, vice president of the Center for First-generation Student Success. The center is an initiative of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and The Suder Foundation.

In making its decision, the center considered Kent State’s I Am First campaign, an initiative launched two years ago to celebrate first-generation students during a week of events and activities meant to increase campus awareness and engagement of first-generation students, staff and faculty. The university’s application also demonstrated that senior leadership is committed to the success of first-generation students. In fact, President Todd Diacon highlighted first-gen students in his 2019 inaugural address.

“It is an honor to be named a leading First-gen Forward university,” President Diacon says. “This award demonstrates our deep commitment to helping all first-generation students successfully navigate the college experience and earn their degree.”

The effort to elevate first-generation students and help them to succeed is a campuswide priority.

The effort to elevate first-generation students and help them to succeed is a campuswide priority. For example, University College has worked with the Center for Teaching and Learning to provide faculty with a workshop on how to support first-generation students in the classroom.

Kent State partners with the LeBron James Family and the District of Columbia College Access Program, organizations that are dedicated to helping students who might otherwise not have the opportunity to attend and graduate from college. Students from both programs will be on the Kent Campus in the fall as freshmen.

Kent State’s designation as a First-gen Forward Institution means the university will have access to professional development and community-building opportunities and have priority use of the center’s research and resources.

The honor also allows Kent State to participate in workshops, provide a feature blog post and give a presentation on first-generation students on campus. If the university continues to engage in the process, it can apply for First-gen Forward Advisory status to coach other institutions.

Kent State’s application to the Center for First-Generation Student Success was a team effort involving Liz Piatt, PhD, assistant dean of Academic Diversity Success in University College; Yvonna Washington-Greer, assistant vice president for Equity, Identity and Success in the Division of Student Affairs; Melanie Jones, director of Academic Diversity Outreach in University College; and Adam Cinderich, director of Student Support Services. Jones and Cinderich are co-chairs of Kent State’s First-Generation Committee.

“The First-gen Forward designation allows us to signal in a prominent way that we really care about students who are first in their families to go to college,” says Piatt, a first-generation student herself. “For our colleagues in other departments and at other institutions, it allows us to highlight the work we are doing at Kent State to support those students.”

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