New Program Helps First-Generation Students Find Their Footing

StudentsFIRST assists UM freshmen in successfully navigating college life

Entrepreneurship major DaMarkus Jackson (right) shares his experiences as a first-generation student at the University of Mississippi at a breakfast for participants in the StudentsFIRST program. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Being the first person in her family to attend college wasn’t an easy thing for Mattie Pintard. The process of completing the admissions application and applying for financial was a challenge, and without her family’s understanding of the process, the Natchez native struggled through the grueling process alone.

“Everything that had to be done; I did by myself,” said Pintard, a freshman psychology major at the University of Mississippi. “It definitely impacted me.”

Pintard is among several first-generation freshmen finding their footing at the university, thanks in large part to StudentsFIRST, a new program launched by the Center for Student Success and First-Year Experience. Through individual mentoring relationships and group instruction, the students learn  information and skills essential to their academic achievement and social adjustment to college life.

“Being the first people from their families to attend college, each of these students is a perfect example of resiliency,” said Michael Smith, academics and StudentsFIRST program coordinator. “Even before they arrived, they overcame such hurdles as unsupportive family, teachers who questioned their potential, financial hardships and insecurities about whether or not they belong in college.

“They have to be highly motivated to face the pressures and defy the odds against them.”

In the program’s inaugural year, some 20 students are participating in StudentsFIRST, including a section of EDHE 105: Freshman Year Experience that is specific to first-generation college students. More than 30 people attended the kickoff meet-and-greet event at the beginning of the fall semester.

Additionally, CONNECT peer mentors are available to first-generation college students in coordination with the UM Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement.

Pre-nursing major Seabrevian Thompson talks about how she became the first person in her family to attend college. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

First-generation students often come from families and environments where higher education might not be a priority or family members who did not attend college themselves simply aren’t able to provide needed guidance.

“When my mom became pregnant with me in the eighth grade, she dropped out of school and never returned,” said Seabrevian Thompson, a pre-nursing major from Sardis. “Growing up, I was always told that I was going to college somewhere after I finished high school.”

Thompson said pursuing a college degree is something she is doing for herself, her mother and her younger siblings.

“My family has been behind me every step of the way,” she said. “I want to become a success so that my brothers can follow in my footsteps.”

Thompson’s sentiments and drive are something that DaMarkus Jackson understands and shares.

“Neither of my parents nor my older brother has ever attended college,” said Jackson, an entrepreneurship major from Canton. “My twin brother, Markeith, and I decided that we would be the first ones in our family to do so.”

While his brother opted for study at an area community college, Jackson never entertained the idea of anything but a four-year institution. He chose UM after attending the 2018 Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent Conference, an annual leadership and recruitment conference for rising African American seniors from Mississippi.

“I’d been told that Ole Miss would be too hard for me, but since I’ve been here, I’ve found everything to be wonderful,” he said. “My brother and I talk on the phone every other day. He’s said he’ll probably join me here after he finishes his associated degree where he is.”

Leslie Estrada’s parents were born and raised in Jalisa, Mexico. Looking for better opportunities, the couple immigrated to the United States and their daughter was born a citizen.

“Because neither of my parents went to college, they both wanted me to go,” said Estrada, an education major from Olive Branch. “Now that I’m here, I’m enjoying the whole college experience.”

Estrada said she is especially grateful for the camaraderie she finds with other first-generation students through StudentsFIRST.

“Everyone needs at least one person in their corner who sees their potential and supports them,” Smith said. “I’m glad that our program fosters an effective transition to college by providing targeted services and resources that promote a holistic experience to support students through their journey to become the first in their family to earn a college degree.”