Jackson State University’s celebration for first-generation college students offers support toward graduation

(JACKSON, Miss.) — Jackson State University recently presented its inaugural First-Generation College Students Celebration to acknowledge young trailblazers pursuing a four-year degree as they close in on a family milestone.

JSU partnered with Southern University in Baton Rouge for a series of mostly virtual events (Zoom and Facebook Live) that were designed to help first-generation students succeed and share experiences.

The urban HBCU also collaborated with departments and units throughout the campus: Title III HBCU Programs, Division of Academic Affairs, Enrollment Management, TRIO Student Support Services, Department of Public Safety, Student Affairs and JSU Online.

Dr. Mitchell Shears is associate vice president for JSU’s Student Success and the executive director of Title III. He knows all too well the difficulties of first-generation students trying to adjust to a new environment with little to no guidance.

“I know exactly what it was like to be a first-gen student on a college campus and not know what to do or where to go. So, to have this event for the first time and to hear students’ experiences that were just like yours was eye-opening in 2020. And I went to college in 1995. It was almost the same exact experience. It was like there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s powerful to see that I’m able to assist the same type of students that I was some years ago,” said Shears, noting that there’s a supportive national platform through the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

Along with that, the U.S. Department of Education provides services to first-generation and low-income students. Among these are Talent Search, Upward Bound, Student Support Services and the McNair Scholars. All are designed to help such students complete high school and gain access to college.

Shears also said that by “working in higher education I know the impact of those programs from middle school to college because there are so many barriers that first-generation students have such as completing FAFSA and trying to figure out what it means or what it is.”

Unfortunately, because their parents haven’t gone to college, Shears said, “It’s difficult for these parents to understand why their taxes are needed to complete FAFSA. They really don’t want to share that information. All of those barriers prevent many first-generation students from going to college. So, programs have been put into place to assist those students.”

Shears is determined to help students navigate through the maze and has worked diligently with the Student Success program.

He noted that Student Success first started out looking at current students, getting them enrolled and retaining them from semester to semester and year to year. The second component of Student Success aimed to provide opportunities for students to improve in their studies and their matriculation and whatever assistance they needed. The third part focused on bringing the TRIO program to the university.

“When I first started we only had the McNair Scholars program, which focused only on 25 students and was housed mainly in the honors program. We didn’t have anything specifically for low-income and first-gen students. That’s when we applied for the U.S. Department of Education grant. And we were able to receive funding for two programs — one focused specifically on STEM students and another focused on all other majors on campus.”

Now, Shears said JSU is in the process of looking at the other TRIO programs. “This year the competition is for Talent Search, which serves middle and high school students. The goal is to get Talent Search funding so that we can start working on a strong pipeline of students who might want to come to Jackson State University – although students can commit to any school of their choice.

“We can’t say you need to come to JSU, but because JSU will be hosting the program we will put our recruiters and Admissions Office staff in front of them as much as possible to help build a pipeline.”

Next year, the Upward Bound program, which focuses on high school students, will be up for competition, Shears said.

A first-generation student participated in a Patio Paint Kickback at the Student Center.

As for activities during the JSU-SU inaugural event, Shears said students participated in a number of exercises. Among them included a stress-relieving virtual JiggAerobics that went viral; insightful panel discussions; and a socially distant Patio Paint Kickback in which students listened to music while artistically creating images on a canvas to depict what their future might look like.

Although there was a huge focus on students, Shears said the nearly weeklong event also celebrated faculty and staff who were first-generation students.

Students joined JiggAerobics, a high-energy fitness craze that infuses entertainment and culture into an exhilarating dance workout.

Shears said he  is proud of what Student Success is accomplishing as it organizes its area to create a “pipeline to graduation line.” He’s especially moved by the many testimonies, including from Ni’Jah Pace, a JSU senior accounting major. Her concern is trying to avoid being a financial burden on her mother, she said.

Furthermore, Shears said, “This event shows that regardless of who we serve there are many students who are just like us. You would think that everybody would take advantage of the opportunities out there. But that’s not the case as it relates to first-gen. Still, it’s a great feeling to provide services to these students.”