Family First

First-generation students find needed support in the 1915 Scholars Program

We are 'Family':Isabel Garcia (center) relaxes with the group she mentors (from left) Sara Martinez-Sanchez 20C, Jenny Becerra 18C, Jaylan Jacobs 20C, Xiqin Huang 18N, Audrey Balan 19C, and Tak Chi Wan 18B.
Kay Hinton

As a high school student in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Jalyn Radziminski-Smith 18C was already taking college classes and preparing to apply to a list of Ivy League schools.

When she was accepted to Emory, she envisioned a bright future where she could pursue all the opportunities offered by a high-profile private university.

In her first few weeks on campus, however, the first-generation college student was homesick and a little overwhelmed by the social, academic, and pragmatic realities of college life. Then she received an invitation to participate in the first cohort of 1915 Scholars.

Launched in fall 2014, the 1915 Scholars program is designed to provide a support network for first-generation college students who might struggle with the transition. Admission requirements include a family income of $100,00 or less and the inability to go to college without scholarship support.

Each student is placed in a “family unit” made up of alumni, students, staff, and retired faculty. The students meet regularly with members of this family group—individually and as a unit— during the academic year.

“Each student is part of a family cluster that serves as their family away from home,” says Adrienne Slaughter, director of Student Success Programs and Services in the Division of Campus Life. “These students often need a support system here beyond what is available to all students. Each year the family grows, like a real family.”

Complementing the orientation programs required for all first-year students, the 1915 Scholars program helps provide support and services for students who may not have similar resources available to them from home. Peer mentors—first-generation students who have been through the program—help first-year scholars navigate, “filling in the gaps” for new students, providing guidance and tips on navigating the first year of college from the student perspective. The mentors receive thorough training so they are well equipped to help first-year students handle a variety of situations, from academic to financial to personal.

“My first few weeks at Emory I was really kind of figuring out college day by day. When I found out there was a program that had workshops to teach you about all of the opportunities at Emory and that provided mentorship, I thought, of course I would be a part of it,” says Radziminski-Smith, a junior interdisciplinary studies major in linguistics and international relations. “The mentorship has been the most helpful to me. Your mentors give you advice in areas you have no idea to even ask about. My family cohort is a network, and we are constantly looking out for each other and sharing resources. I wouldn’t have been able to do all I have done without my family.”

And Radziminski-Smith has been very involved, running varsity cross-country and track; helping grow the Multiethnic Racial Group at Emory designed to support and celebrate multiracial, biracial, and multiethnic students; helping found the Black Mental Health Ambassadors, which advocates for black students in relation to mental health; and serving as president of the Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority for 2016–2017.

Isabel Garcia 99L supports the program as an alumni mentor for a group of three juniors, two sophomores, and two first-year students.

“Achieving academic excellence cannot happen without diversity as most broadly defined. These first-generation scholars are essential to that goal. We owe it to our scholars and our university to see that these scholars thrive in this most competitive of academic environments,” Garcia says. “Coming to Emory can be overwhelming, and for a lot of these first-generation students this is not only their first time being away from home, but the college environment is completely foreign. It’s not enough that these students merely attend Emory—we strive to make them realize that they are an essential component to the student body.”

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