Helping First Generation Students Achieve Their Degree

Jeffrey Ogbar, vice provost for diversity, left, Shantel Honeyghan '15 (CLAS), and Hasudin Pehratovic '15 (BUS). (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Jeffrey Ogbar, vice provost for diversity, left, Shantel Honeyghan ’15 (CLAS), and Hasudin Pehratovic ’15 (BUS). (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Hasudin Pehratovic ’15 (BUS) is the first in his family to go to college. Thanks to a new program that is designed to help ‘First Gen’ students like him, his UConn education so far has included not only his academic studies, but a range of other activities, from meeting with key individuals on campus as he explores his career options, to learning about questions of dining etiquette.

He says the SEAL program (Students Engaged in Academic Leadership) has also taught him to “Never take anything for granted, and always give back.”

Pehratovic, who was born in Bosnia and came to Connecticut with his family in 2000, is one of 21 juniors and 13 sophomores who make up the first two cohorts enrolled in Students Engaged in Academic Leadership (SEAL), developed through UConn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity.

Aimed at students who are the first in their families to attend college, and currently funded by a five-year grant from the Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship program, admission to SEAL is through a competitive application process open to first-semester sophomores. Those accepted stay in the program from the second semester of their sophomore year through their senior year, providing they maintain GPA requirements and are actively engaged in specified activities. During this time they receive a stipend of $750 per semester, as they are exposed to networking and mentoring opportunities, internships, and organized team-building exercises.

Building a support system

Jeffrey Ogbar, vice provost for diversity, explains how the program at UConn came about: “The University does a great job of providing support for various groups of students,” he says. “For example, the Honors Program recognizes those who are academically gifted, and there are opportunities such as Travelers Edge (for business-related majors), and LSAMP (for STEM majors) that provide resources and opportunities for individuals from specific disciplines. Those programs have graduation rates that exceed 90 per cent.

“With SEAL, we hoped to replicate that same type of programming for students regardless of major, but with emphasis on a particular demographic,” Ogbar says, “and that’s students who will be the first in their families to graduate from college.”

Nationally, this group has a disproportionately high dropout rate, particularly between their sophomore and junior years. The SEAL program targets that group, and is modeled on the success of existing UConn programs.

While UConn is just starting to collect specific metrics for First Gen students, the nationwide numbers are troubling, Ogbar notes. First Gen students across the country are nearly four times as likely to leave college after their first year as those who have at least one parent with a college degree. In fact, only 26 percent of First Gen students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within eight years.

Reasons given for the high attrition rate include the fact that these individuals may lack a support system that includes parents who have experienced college and who support the idea of higher education. The students are often older, with additional work and family responsibilities. And in some cases, they come from a lower socio-economic background, which makes paying for higher education more difficult.

UConn’s SEAL program is aimed exclusively at first-generation college students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or economic status. Applicants must have a GPA of at least 2.5, demonstrate leadership, and be committed to developing their professional and academic skills. “We’ve had incredibly competitive pools of applicants,” Ogbar says.

Planning for success

Shantel Honeyghan ’15 (CLAS), who like Pehratovic is a member of the first cohort chosen last year, agrees that the program has provided a variety of valuable opportunities.

A native of Jamaica who lives in Hartford, Honeyghan was first introduced to UConn through the Teacher Preparatory Studies Program at Bulkeley High School. This initiative, which partners high schools with the Neag School of Education, is designed to encourage talented students, particularly from minority groups, to become teachers.

When she first came to UConn, she planned to major in education because of the positive experiences she had with Neag faculty when she was in high school. “But it turned out that I wasn’t confident in my choice,” she says, “so I took a close look at myself and evaluated my interests. Now I have a double major in English and Human Development & Family Studies.

Honeyghan hopes to get a master’s degree and eventually a Ph.D. in higher education and student affairs.

“Part of my decision is the example set by Dr. Ogbar, by Dr. [Willena] Price in the African-American Cultural Center, and by others I’ve met through SEAL and my exposure to leadership activities,” she says. “Diversity and multiculturalism are very important to me, and I hope I can give back by eventually working in an office of diversity initiatives or an office of civic engagement.”

Kelly Sanchez ’15 (CLAS), who hails from New Haven, also gives SEAL high marks for exposing her to leadership opportunities and introducing her to individuals on campus who serve as mentors and role models.

“I knew from the time I was in high school that I wanted to major in psychology and when I went for my interview [for the SEAL program], I met [psychology professor] Michelle Williams and she has been a wonderful mentor for me,” says Sanchez, “being there when I need her and encouraging me every step of the way.”

What she didn’t anticipate was how much she would be inspired by a course in Puerto Rican & Latin American studies that she took with Professor Guillermo Irizarry. Because of this course, she now has a double major in Psychology and Latin American Studies and hopes someday to work as a clinical psychologist.

Her interaction with Williams, associate vice president for research and associate professor in the Department of Psychology, and Irizarry, associate professor of literatures, cultures, and languages, are examples of the types of relationships forged between students and campus leaders that were envisioned when the program was created. It is believed to be one of the factors enhancing retention.

Low attrition, high GPA

SEAL program administrator Seanice DeShields, director of diversity initiatives in the School of Business, says the retention rate for the first cohort – 95 percent – exceeds the University average for first-generation students, as does the collective GPA of SEAL fellows.

“We’re really encouraged by the progress of this program,” she says.

The attrition rate is low; only one student has left the program due to transferring to another university. And the collective GPA of students in the program is over 3.3 and on the rise.

“We’re really excited about the future,” DeShields adds, “and the number of First Gen students who will be graduating from UConn in years to come.”