Nationally, 30 percent of college freshmen are first-generation students. Eighty-nine percent of low-income, first-gens leave college within six years without a degree.
While the majority of first-gen students have the drive to succeed, many lack the support system that pushes them to finish. The College works hard to support first-generation students and help them accomplish their goal of obtaining a degree.
A number of initiatives in the college and across the entire University of Cincinnati are available for first-gens in their times of need.
Gen-1 Theme House
The Gen-1 Theme House is a University of Cincinnati community for at-risk students. An off-campus residence, it houses 26 first-generation students and provides them with the support they need for a successful transition from high school to college. Qualified students (first-generation, Pell grant eligible freshmen) are given a 24/7 structured living and learning environment through tutoring, mentoring, social activities and professional counseling.
College Success Course
This first-year course focuses on vital skills necessary to succeed in college: time management, approaches to studying, the use of technology for effective learning and research skills.
The Arts and Sciences academic advising staff and the Center for Exploratory Studies (CES) help students with course planning and degree progress. Both groups have earned awards for their diversity efforts, and CES was featured by the National Academic Advising Association as one of three programs nationally for effective advising of special populations.
A walk through campus buildings will give students an opportunity to meet other first-gens. Professors in A&S who are first-generation college students themselves have adorned their office doors with Gen-1 stickers. These declarations are an effort by the college to stimulate conversation between current first-generation students and the professors who have successfully finished college and went on to earn PhDs. Students are encouraged to talk with faculty about their experiences and learn possible ways to navigate their journeys.
The narratives below describe just a few of the journeys taken by faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.
Vernon Scarborough, Professor of Anthropology
I grew up in a rural community - 300 strong - in an economically depressed fishing and logging village. Although my father was a smart man, he was only able to get a third-grade education. He went to the "school of hard knocks," his mother died bringing him into the world, and he rode range in West Texas with his dad—my grandfather. I don't remember grandfather, but I know he always slept with a six-shooter under his pillow and did odd jobs to keep his son well-fed and clothed. My dad did the same, though he focused on landscape contracting to make a good living for our family of six. My mother worked to earn a high school diploma, but neither of my parents had a clue as to what a university might have been. They just understood, having lived through a Great Depression and losing what little they had, that a formal education could never be taken away from you. I am now an anthropologist, a career my parents never really knew existed.
Margaret Hanson, Professor of Physics
My parents never went to college and there was no money to send me. By chance, the summer before my senior year I got a job as a nurse assistant in our rural town in Minnesota. My boss suggested I study nursing. I needed chemistry and added it late in the fall semester. I finished with an A because I studied for the first time in my life. My chemistry teacher and the nurses I worked with wrote supportive letters and I was accepted into a small college. I had some grant support at the start, but later had to transfer to a cheaper school. Here I discovered math and then physics. Eventually, I transferred to the University of Minnesota to pursue physics. I studied very hard to maintain good grades. In order to cover tuition and my living expenses, I had to work a lot of jobs. I lived in low-rent districts, took the bus everywhere and bag-lunched every day. But eight years after finishing my high school diploma, I finished a double major in physics and astrophysics and was off to graduate school where I eventually finished a PhD in astrophysics.
Pat McSwiggen, Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences
I come from a large family of intrepid optimists: one brother hitchhiked around Europe at age 15, a sister flew to Nigeria for a year despite having no entry visa and without so much as bus fare in her pocket, and several brothers sailed down the Mississippi, making it as far as the Bahamas before being shipwrecked on a deserted island. So it made perfect sense that after high school, looking for adventure, I headed out to California with a small bag, little money, and a plan to attend UC Berkeley, a place that signified counterculture excitement to a child of the '70s. Never mind that not only had I not been admitted, I hadn't even applied! I got a room in a boarding house and landed a job. After a year I started classes at the local community college, where tuition was only $9 per quarter for California residents! With good grades, after 3 years, I transferred to Berkeley on scholarship, changed my major from chemistry to math, and stayed there to complete my PhD.
Michelle Gibson, Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
It sounds clichéd, but I honestly believe that the choice to go to college saved my life. I just barely graduated from high school; then I spent several years working as a cocktail waitress in the only gay bar in my hometown, as an emcee for a drag king troupe, selling cars, peddling insurance door-to-door, and living "hand to mouth." Because "college life" seemed more inviting than the life I had been leading, I finally enrolled in a local two-year college. I started college believing myself uniquely inadequate and fearing that my inadequacies were visible not only to my peers, but also to my professors. I surprised myself by graduating from Hutchinson Community College, but I still had no idea what to do with myself, so I went to a four-year college in Maryland to complete my bachelor's degree, and then on to graduate school for my doctorate in English. Now, as a Professor in the Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UC, I find that the life experiences that initially made me feel inadequate as a student—a difficult childhood and living as an "out" lesbian, for instance—have actually become assets to my teaching and my scholarship.
Hilda Smith, Professor of History
I come from poor parents who adopted me when I was 6 months old from a foundling hospital in Kansas City. I lived my early life on a farm, with two stints with my parents to California where they worked as migrant farm workers in northern California, and then back to Springfield, Mo., where my father worked as a ditch digger with the city utilities, digging water mains. I received a four-year curator's scholarship from the University of Missouri, but did not accept it as no one made clear how I could live in Columbia, Mo. without financial support beyond the scholarship. I attended Southwest Missouri State College (now Missouri State University) and graduated with a BS in Education and a double major in English and History; I then received an MA in History from the University of Missouri, taught high school for two years in Granite City, Ill., then was admitted to the University of Chicago and received a PhD there in 1975. Except for the University of Missouri award, I went totally on NDEA loans through the doctorate. I was hired at the University of Maryland, College Park in the Department of History, served some years as an administrator in the humanities, and in 1987 was hired by UC with tenure in the Department of History and as Director of Women's Studies.
Ken Tankersley, Assistant Professor of Anthropology
I am an Appalachian, a Native American, and the first person in my family to attend college. Not wanting to sharecrop, split rails, or work in a coal mine, as did the generations before him, my father chose to serve in the military. Afterward, he settled in Cincinnati, which gave me the opportunity to pursue an education. As a child, I read National Geographic magazines and watched National Geographic specials on television. I dreamed that one day I would grow up and conduct the kind of research that would be featured on a National Geographic film. Then in seventh grade, I competed in and won first place in the University of Cincinnati Regional Science Fair. One of the judges, Dr. Kenneth E. Caster, a distinguished paleontologist in the Department of Geology, encouraged me to apply to the geology program at the University of Cincinnati. Five years later, I followed his advice. I earned my baccalaureate and completed a master's degree in Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. Because UC did not have a PhD program in anthropology, Professor Tony Perzigian encouraged me to apply to his alma mater, Indiana University. With the help and recommendations of faculty at UC, I was awarded a free ride to Indiana University. Following my doctorate work at Indiana University, I did post-doctorate research in the Quaternary Studies Program in Illinois. Since then, I have traveled around the world, serving as a foreign delegate to the National Academy of Sciences and consultant for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, the Animal Planet, the History Channel, the BBC and PBS. Because of the mentorship that I found in the College of Arts and Sciences, my dreams have come true.
Barbara Wenner, Associate Professor of English
I was a PhD student teaching first-year composition when I heard the term "first-generation college." Our director told us to be particularly sensitive to their needs, and I realized that I myself had been "first-generation college" (and high school, for that matter). My mother was learning-disabled during a time when people just called it "not trying hard enough," so she was "socially" promoted through many grades, without ever really learning to read beyond about a third-grade level. My father came from the hills of eastern Kentucky. He was sent to high school at Berea College and spent three years trying to attend class in the morning and work in the college bakery in the afternoon. He finally dropped out of school and went north to Cincinnati looking for work. I was fortunate that my parents moved to a good school district, Madeira, and it was there that I got an education that prepared me for college. I graduated from UC and many years later went back for my PhD in English Literature, specializing in Jane Austen. Until the day she died, my mother kept asking me, "Who is this 'Jane Austen'? I never heard of her."
Grace Epstein, Professor of Humanities, Media, & Cultural Studies
I was barely 2 years old when my father, a steel worker, decided to cash in on the GI bill and go to college. While it put a huge burden upon my mother for raising me and my brother, my father started taking classes at the local university. Of course, he kept the full-time job, and for the next several years, my dad came in at midnight from his third-shift job at the factory, well after my brother and I were in bed. Yet that was when I saw him most often. I had asthma and spent many nights awake and wheezing beside my dad, who bent over his little end table and talked to me about all the lessons he was taking: English, French, biology, philosophy and especially physics, which became his major. I suspect he kept me entertained in my affliction as a way to learn the following day's lessons. When I was 6, he graduated from Ohio State University. I didn't know then, or for many years after, that what my father and mother accomplished was exceptional. Nor did I have any idea about the amount of sacrifice it took to do it. What I did appreciate very early on though was that learning was important, critical in fact, and that thinking had value well beyond income or the job one held. Knowledge, understanding and thought were not personal gifts, but familial and civic duties. Learning generated its own heat that brought warmth and strength much like the coal dad hustled from the freight cars. In my asthmatic forays at his knee, I understood that his education was, for all of us, life-sustaining and probably life-saving, a treasure not to be sought for only personal gain, but to be extended to those we cherish and generously received from those we hope to understand.
Richard Harknett, Associate Professor of Political Science
I was a first generation college graduate, so when I suggested to my parents that I wanted to go to graduate school there was a bit of a sense of disbelief—more school? Although they were very supportive in the end, I too was not sure of where more school would lead me. Honestly, while accepted to Johns Hopkins University with a doctoral fellowship, I entered graduate school with an eye on stopping with an MA and working in a Washington D.C. policy-think tank. It was not until I entered graduate studies that I realized I was energized by the study of international relations, not necessarily its practice. Once I had my first opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant, I was hooked and became determined to start an academic career. If I had told my parents in 1981 when I left for my first day of college at Villanova University that I would spend 29 straight years on a college campus, they probably would have shook their heads in despair that it would take me that long to graduate, because becoming a college professor would have never have crossed their minds. That is the great thing about entering college: you have no idea where it will lead you, but if you follow your passion, it will lead you well.