What would help first-gen students feel like they might belong in college?

We’ve learned from our own Heckscher Scholars, mentees, and students in grantee organizations that visiting and staying on a college campus offers an unparalleled experience. We conceived of a SUNY Summer Residential Program for low income, first-generation-to-college New York City high school students aimed at improving the likelihood of their college matriculation and success. In 2019, we continued to support this pilot at the University at Albany and SUNY Potsdam, and added a third campus, SUNY Oswego. Selected in partnership with the SUNY Impact Foundation, each campus offers a three-week summer residential program that includes a transition to college course, an experiential credit-bearing course, career exploration, and social and recreational activities. Following the summer program, each campus tracks college application and enrollment behavior, and facilitates the application process for those participants who choose to apply to their respective campuses.

Another way we’ve addressed this question is by connecting incoming low-income, first-generation college students to each other before they arrive on campus. For the past six years, Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) has organized College Decision Day at the historic Apollo Theater in partnership with 20+ New York City-based college access and success organizations. The event is modeled as a college draft where over 200 graduating high school seniors proudly announce their college choices in front of an audience of cheering families, students, staff, volunteers, and supporters. Leveraging this opportunity of having a significant number of low-income and first-generation college students in one place, we designed a series of regional post-event workshops and dinners so that students headed to the same or nearby schools can network and build relationships with other first-generation students prior to arriving on campus. The workshops include topics such as financial literacy, health and wellness, self-identity, and using failures to produce success. College representatives are invited to attend.

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