First-generation students bring unique perspectives, enhance learning environments at Marquette in incalculable ways

*The following story originally appeared in Hispanic Outlook on Education Magazine

By Shelby Williamson, senior communication specialist in the Office of University Relations at Marquette University

As a Catholic, Jesuit institution, part of Marquette University’s mission is to provide a transformational experience for all students by expanding pathways to educational success and opportunity.

“Higher education remains essential for social mobility, cultivating civic engagement, the production of research and creative activity, and regional economic growth,” says Dr. John Su, vice provost for academic affairs and student success at Marquette, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

That is why Marquette has initiatives in place to connect with, empower and support students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, including students of color, students from low-income families and first-generation students.

First-generation students are students whose parent(s) or immediate caregiver(s) did not complete a four-year college or university degree.

Currently, about 22% of Marquette students are first generation.

Brian Troyer, associate vice provost for enrollment management and dean of undergraduate admissions at Marquette, says the university makes first-generation students a priority — through several avenues like high school outreach programs — for many reasons. It starts, though, with being a catalyst in promoting positive outcomes that will transcend a single generation.

“Data shows higher education can play a big role in the successes a person experiences,” Troyer says. “Those with a bachelor’s degree on average earn 31% more in their lifetime than those with an associate’s degree and 84% more than those with a high school diploma. And outcomes like knowledge, financial stability, community engagement and independence are key factors in creating strong futures for individuals and families. If we as an institution aren’t serving these populations, we aren’t acting in the best interests of anyone.”

In fall 2021, there were just over 1,700 first-generation students enrolled at Marquette, and nearly 24% of first-year students that year were first generation.

Additionally, 19% of Marquette’s 2022 undergraduate graduating class were first-generation students — an indication Marquette is seeing success at both attracting and retaining these students. The university is also on track to set a record for the highest number of first-generation students in its fall 2022 cohort since the university started tracking the data in the 1960s.

Jacki Black, director for Hispanic initiatives and diversity and inclusion educational programming in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion at Marquette, says serving underrepresented students connects to the heart of Marquette’s mission and Ignatian tenet of cura personalis — care for the whole person — and other guiding principles that call on us to nurture an inclusive community.

Disparate access to quality education continues to be a source of inequality in the United States, Black adds.

“It is a fact that Black, Latino/a and Indigenous students are more likely to be first-generation college students than their white counterparts,” Black says.

In fall 2021, 59% of Latino/a undergraduate students at Marquette were first generation. By comparison, just 13% of white students identified as first generation.

While the numbers show a major contrast among the groups, these and other stats are also indicative of Marquette’s commitment to enrollment diversity, Troyer says.

In October 2021, Marquette took a significant step forward to becoming a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) by achieving “Emerging HSI” status. The status is a designation for institutions with Hispanic or Latina/o students making up between 15% and 24.9% of their undergraduate student body.

Members of Paso a Paso, a student organization that looks to spread cultural awareness on Latin American cultures through their different types of dance.

HSI is a federal designation that requires an undergraduate population that is at least 25% Hispanic. At least half of those students must qualify as low-income. Marquette announced its commitment to becoming an HSI in 2016. At that time, undergraduate Hispanic/Latina/o student enrollment was 9.7%. Overall, the university’s Latina/o undergraduate enrollment has more than doubled over the last 10 years.

“I’m proud to work on a college campus that takes very seriously our responsibility to serve our students and create a sense of support and belonging,” Black adds. “There are so many faculty and staff members here who were themselves first-gen students, or identify as first-gen allies, who really understand the student experience and have a passion for uplifting them.”

Su underscores Black’s point that it’s not enough to get first-generation students to campus.

The real difference, Su says, is made in the resources available to students throughout their time in higher education.

“Thus, Marquette has a variety of cohort programs to help develop a sense of community and accelerate first-generation academic progress,” Su says.

Programs include the Student Success Initiative, which provides first-year students with additional scaffolding through access to peer mentors and support staff, such as those who work in the Office of Student Educational Services and the Center for Intercultural Engagement; the Ready to Inspire Success and Excellence (RISE), a free multi-cultural pre-orientation program for underrepresented first-year students; the Urban Scholars Program, which provides up to 40 full tuition scholarships to high school seniors from the Milwaukee area; the Emerging Scholars Program, which helps incoming freshmen get a jumpstart on the Marquette experience and the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a federally funded TRiO academic program that supports low-income and first-generation students to succeed in higher education.

The university also has a First-Generation College Student Network, which is a network designed for Marquette students, faculty, and staff who are willing to serve as resources and allies for first-generation students.

The network is strong, Troyer says, which is proof of the growing population and a great example of the engaging culture that first-generation students bring to Marquette.

“There are many well-documented benefits of diversity on college campuses — diverse classrooms and problem-solving teams foster innovation, and divergent points of view can help students develop critical thinking skills,” Black says. “First-generation students bring unique perspectives that enhance our learning environment in incalculable ways, and they contribute to the lifeblood of our institution as integral members.”