As part of its ongoing commitment to strengthen support for first-generation students on all Washington State University campuses, the Division of Student Affairs has established a new position to foster increased collaboration and innovation to better serve them.

Angie Klimko, who has served as director of TRIO Student Support Services on the Pullman campus for four years, has been named the director of First at WSU.

According to Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president of Student Affairs, Klimko will work with the WSU System Student Affairs Cabinet to champion integrated and coordinated efforts and support for first generation students on all campuses. Klimko’s priorities include fostering a system-wide student-ready culture which advances first-generation student success.

As a former first-gen student, Gonzales has demonstrated a longstanding professional commitment to improving the student experience for those who are first-generation. At WSU, a first-generation college student is defined as any student whose parents did not graduate with a bachelor’s degree. About one-third of WSU’s student body systemwide are first-generation students.

Gonzales said Klimko is not tied to a single office or department and will focus entirely on building capacity in the WSU system and supporting efforts on all WSU campuses to support the success of first-gen students.

“In partnership with the vice chancellors on all of our campuses, Angie will expand upon our current system and campus-based efforts to enhance the student experience for first-gen Cougs,” Gonzales said. “This is the first step in aligning system resources to ensure student-ready cultures on all our campuses, a goal embedded in the WSU System Strategic Plan.”

A natural next step

WSU has a long and successful history of serving first-generation students, especially among its many federally-funded TRIO Programs. The first WSU TRIO program, the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, was established on the Pullman campus in 1999. Since then WSU has expanded its array of programs systemwide to include Upward Bound, GEAR UP, College Assistance Migrant Program, Student Support Services, First Scholars, and others.

In recognition of WSU’s longstanding commitment to serving first-gen students, the Division of Student Affairs led the effort in 2019 to designate WSU a First-gen Forward Institution by the Center for First‑Generation Student Success, an initiative of the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) and The Suder Foundation. Gonzales said establishing a systemwide First at WSU position is a natural next step.

“I see this as a great opportunity for the entire system to elevate first-generation initiatives, to highlight all the work we are all doing, and to tell the story about our first-gen students in a bigger way,” said Klimko. “I’m very excited about the possibilities.”

Lift-up first-gen students on every campus

After nearly three years of efforts to create such a position, Student Affairs leaders on all of the WSU campuses welcomed the news. With just over half of WSU Vancouver’s students being first-gen, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Domanic Thomas said Klimko can help lift-up the first-gen identity as something students can hold with pride and be celebrated by the university.

“It will put us in better position to hear from these students, to figure out what their needs are and respond to them,” Thomas said. “We can develop plans that are specific to those needs while not taking away from other programs.”

Jim Mohr, vice chancellor of Student Affairs at the WSU Spokane Health Sciences campus, said because students in health sciences typically begin their studies as juniors or as graduate students, people assume they already know the ropes in higher education.

“That simply isn’t true for many students, especially first-gen students,” Mohr said. “It will be a big help having someone thinking about ways we can better connect with these students, suggest appropriate programming, and helping us to implement them.”

The WSU Global campus also has nuances with its first-generation students, many of whom are also older students. The average age of students on the Global campus is 30. Debbie O’Donnell, vice chancellor of Student Affairs for the Global Campus, said many of them are working, are parents, caregivers, and are active in their communities. They may not see their primary role as being a student in a very full life.

She sees herself working with Klimko on demystifying education and making it easier for first-gen students to balance a full life.

“I don’t know that we can necessarily overlay the initiatives or tactics provided for traditional first-gen students onto our Global campus students,” O’Donnell said. “We are certainly open to new ways of improving the work we do to benefit first-gen students and incorporate those strategies into the fabric of our student support system.”

Telling their stories

WSU Provost Elizabeth Chilton and two WSU student leaders shared their experiences as first-gen students during a virtual panel discussion yesterday titled, “We Are First-Generation: Navigating WSU from a First-Gen Perspective.”

Each panelist described having similar struggles ranging from confusion about the college admissions and financial aid process to being burdened with educating their parents about how college works and feeling like they did not belong.

“I had a high school counselor tell me not to worry about taking the SAT or ACT because they couldn’t see me applying to schools that need them,” said Mikala Meize, College of Communications representative in the Graduate and Professional Student Association. “That’s one of the biggest things that fueled my fire over the years and now I’m seven months away from earning my Ph.D.”

As enrolled college students, Alexandra Donnici, deputy director of legislative affairs in the Associated Students of Washington State University, and Chilton talked about being intimidated by their professors and not taking advantage of their office hours.

“In my mind, faculty were big academic overlords that just handed down grades,” Donnici said. Chilton added, “Faculty office hours were a mystery to me. Was I supposed to go there only when I’m having trouble? Do they expect me to go there? I was afraid to ask.”

All three panelists encourage first-gen students to ask questions no matter how small they may seem, get involved on campus to meet people, and utilize the many resources available to them. They said faculty and staff should strive to be relatable and approachable to students, anticipate questions first-gen students may have and address them before being asked, and be patient when working with students, something Donnici sees often at WSU.

“The staff at WSU are relentlessly patient, kind, and willing to talk with both my family and me,” she said. “I have really appreciated it.”

A new academic honor society

Students across the WSU system can join a new honor Society that recognizes academic achievements in first-generation students, creates enthusiasm for scholarship, promotes leadership, and provides them with support networks across the nation.

The Office of Access and Opportunity and the First-gen Forward Working Group in Student Affairs worked together to bring Alpha Alpha Alpha, otherwise known as Tri-Alpha, to WSU.

“It is important to recognize the academic accomplishments of all students, but especially for those who are the first in their family to attend college,” Loera said. “These students come to WSU with a lot of competency and skills and this gives us an opportunity to formally recognize their academic achievement and connect them with a valuable support network.”

Students interested in joining can visit WSU’s Tri-Alpha website to learn about eligibility criteria, benefits of becoming a member, and submit their applications. Applications for the inaugural cohort are due Dec. 12, 2020.

WSU junior Jennifer Espin, a first-gen student majoring in civil engineering, is helping Loera and Klimko establish the honor society at WSU.

“I am very excited about having a Tri-Alpha chapter here,” she said. “Having opportunities to interact with other students who understand your struggles and share the same passion is very important. Also, since Tri-Alpha is a national organization, I am looking forward to possibly being mentored by people beyond WSU.”

Special memberships are available to faculty, staff and alumni. There is a one-time $20 membership fee, which lasts a lifetime. Loera said her office is planning to host an induction ceremony in early 2021.

There are 55 Tri-Alpha chapters nationally with WSU and Seattle University being the only two in Washington. Tri-Alpha was founded in 2018 at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Penn. The WSU chapter was approved in the summer of 2020 and will be chartered in November.

Some first-gen students from across the WSU system talk about their student experience in a short video produced by Sarah Page in the Division of Student Affairs.