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University reaches new phase of support for first‑gen students

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In recognition of its longstanding commitment to first‑gen students, Washington State University was recently honored by the Center for First-generation Student Success and moved to an advanced phase of the center’s First Scholars Network.

WSU was chosen for the honor based on its demonstrated dedication to “improving both first-generation student success initiatives and institution-wide approaches,” the center said in a press release. Over 35% of WSU students system-wide are first gen.

“We are extremely honored to be selected as a First Scholars institution by the Center for First-generation Student Success,” said Elizabeth Chilton, WSU provost and executive vice president, and chancellor of the WSU Pullman campus. “WSU is reiterating its dedication to ensuring that all students, regardless of background, are provided with the opportunities and services they need to achieve their goals.”

Helping every student succeed

The First Scholars Network, an initiative of NASPA and the Suder Foundation, is a four-phase journey that helps participating institutions build systemic support structures for first‑gen students. WSU joined the network in 2017 and advanced to the second phase in 2019. These earlier phases required WSU to build a foundational understanding of what first‑gen student success looks like at WSU, share knowledge and resources with other institutions, and demonstrate commitment to the academic, personal, and professional success of first‑gen Cougs.

Now in phase three — the First Scholars phase — WSU is tasked with establishing a transformational environment where first‑gen student support is created, scaled, and sustained.

“As with most institutions across the nation, we need to become a more student-ready university and meet students where they are,” said Angie Klimko, director of first‑gen initiatives and the First at WSU Student Center on the WSU Pullman campus. “My hope is that the First Scholars framework will continue to allow us space for honest and open dialogue about the barriers first‑gen students are facing and highlight the assets they bring to our institution.”

Klimko, who has been leading WSU’s efforts in the First Scholars Network, said phase three will be a multi-year process in which WSU will focus on improving its institutional cultures and systems to increase first‑gen student success. 

As part of this phase, WSU is forming a first‑gen steering committee and working groups to begin the process of evaluating the institution’s current programs and systems. This is a collaborative effort involving Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and Enrollment Management. 

“Being recently introduced to the First Scholars Network, I see that this is an exciting opportunity for faculty, staff, and students to collaboratively reimagine what the first-generation experience will be like now and in the future at our institution, and it will allow us to move beyond a student enrolling institution to a student serving institution,” said William B. Davis, interim vice provost for academic engagement and student achievement.

As a first step in this effort, faculty and staff are being asked to complete the Insights Tool, a survey that will help WSU determine specific areas it can improve its support of first‑gen Cougs.

“We need to create a shared understanding of what it means to be a first-generation college student and to explore the life cycle of first‑gen students here at WSU,” Klimko said. “The first‑gen steering committee and working groups will consider how we can think strategically about and scale our current programs, resources, and high-impact practices and connect them to reach an increased number of first‑gen students.”

The First Scholars Network will help WSU with this process by providing frameworks of actionable priorities, diagnostic tools like the survey that give crucial insights, and guidance from expert coaches. The ultimate goal is to create an institutional culture centered on first‑gen students.

The final phase in the First Scholars Network is to become a First Scholars Champion Campus: reaching that phase will indicate that WSU is moving from being a first‑gen enrolling institution to a top‑rated first‑gen student success institution. 

“First Scholars has allowed us to identify barriers and hold ourselves accountable to meet our institutional goals, and it will continue to do so as we move through this journey,” Klimko said. “This is important because using a first‑gen lens doesn’t just benefit first‑gen students — it helps every student succeed and increases our enrollment, retention, and graduation rates for all Cougs.”

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