1G Excellence: UW Programs Benefit First Generation Students

First Generation Student, Lisa Abeyta

First Generation Student, Lisa Abeyta, plans to graduate December 2011.

 

By Lyle Wiley

Every student new to university life undergoes a bit of culture shock.  I remember my first freshman moments on UW campus, wide-eyed and buzzing with nervous expectation.  A whole new set of imminent academic, social and monetary responsibilities arrived in my lap, and I set to work at slowly dissolving the terror of it all.  Professors spoke from podiums like gods, and fear swept over me.  Extra time was balanced between studies, work, and constant social interactions.

My friends dropped like flies around me, many of whom cut classes and walked away from school altogether.  A family support system, some idea of what to expect at UW, and adequate confidence in my ability to survive at this level allowed me to thrive, but a number of fellow students (many of whom possessed far more intelligence and talent than me) lacked this help, knowledge and confidence.  Also, many first generation students and students from underrepresented groups, while facing the same adjustments and obstacles as traditional students, have additional challenges and pressures to face upon initiation to university life.

Amanda Stills credits her success to her mom and programs targetted to assist first generation students adapt to life at UW.

Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated by the cool, calm, collective young lady seated across from me putting away her copy of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Amanda Stills is a first generation college student studying psychology at the University of Wyoming.   Still’s freshman eyes are confident and in no way resemble the deer-in-the-headlights looks I have seen all over campus as midterms approach.   One major contributor to Still’s confidence and success as a freshman was her attendance of SRAP (Summer Research Apprenticeship Program) at UW two summers previous.  “My mom made me go to SRAP,” she recalls smilingly, “That was probably one of the best decisions that she ever pushed me towards as it has helped me phenomenally with college.”

SRAP is a summer research program sponsored by Wyoming NSF EPSCoR which gives high school students an opportunity to work with UW faculty for seven weeks and get first-hand experience in science related research.  The program is a fantastic preparation for high school students bound for college.  The focus of this program is to primarily reach first generation and underrepresented students groups, increasing the confidence and readiness of those in attendance.

SRAP helped Still attain an academic focus and garner confidence for the college transition.  “It taught me a lot about how to be functional and how to go about a professional career the right way,” she tells me, “I learned to e-mail professors but do so in a professional manner.   I am not afraid to talk to professors.  So many freshmen around me are extremely intimidated by professors.  But I was able to get a research assistantship by e-mailing my professor and asking.”  Still has kicked off her college education with an early research assistantship and participation in the Honors program, all the while carrying herself like an academic professional.    She is also taking large strides to reaching her goals to study social psychology and work in criminal law with behavior analysis units.

Earlier in the week I was seated across from another remarkable past participant in the SRAP program, Lisa Abeyta.  Abeyta, a Denver native, is now a senior at UW slated to graduate at the close of fall semester.  It is going to be one large celebration when Lisa finishes her degree.  “My mom and dad started planning a huge party a while back,” she tells me happily.  Abeyta’s parents have good reason to be proud of her accomplishments.   She also comes from a first generation college student background and has faced numerous challenges along the way.  She thought back to her beginnings as a student at UW and recalled, “Going here was a really tough situation. I didn’t know much about going to school.  My parents knew very little too.  Nobody understands.  That is definitely something a family has to overcome.”

Abeyta has much gratitude for the SRAP program.  “Without SRAP I don’t think I would be here,” she states candidly.  While she always wanted to go to college, Abeyta’s knowledge of what university life would entail or how she would survive was incredibly limited.  Still, as a result of her summer experience with SRAP, Abeyta arrived on Laramie campus with a fine tuned idea of what was expected of her in classes and a support group of individuals she had worked with during the program.  “I had no idea what to expect with school,” she explains, “but SRAP helped me see what to expect.  It really helped me understand what university life is like.  It helped eventually lead me in the direction I want to go. I definitely want to be a part of helping high school students and would like to be a part of programs like SRAP that have such a huge impact on the lives of students.”    Abeyta’s passion to help others succeed in the way she has had success here at UW is admirable, and doubtless she will be successful wherever life takes her after graduation.

The SRAP summer research program and programs like it have touched the lives of many incredibly talented students, like Still and Abeyta, and given them skills to succeed in a university atmosphere.  I was kindly given an opportunity to speak with one of the more vocal advocates of such programs in Laramie, UW President Tom Buchanan.

Buchanan warmly praised the efforts of these programs and the faculty, staff, and student involvement.  He smiled thoughtfully when he spoke about the efforts of these individuals and the assistance of these programs, pointing out, “I think there is a lot more awareness and support for students who want to go further in education that don’t necessarily have the way paved as clearly for them as some folks.  I just think this is mom and apple pie.  These are good students.  These are good programs.  To not want to support them would seem pretty illogical.  They are by and large programs that survive on a shoestring.  They need all the help they can get.  They are easy programs to support.  They do good work.  They do the work tightly constrained by the size of the budget they have historically grown accustomed to working with.  And all you have to do is look at the track record to see the impressive results of these programs.”

The sheer number of success stories of individuals bursting through SRAP is indeed impressive to behold.  The data holds up these programs without question.  All the same, I am thoroughly impressed by the people I have met on campus both passionate and transformed by programs that reach out to first generation and underrepresented groups of students.   And most of all, I am impressed by Still and Abeyta, two incredibly talented students given the slightest of nudges by a program like SRAP and then rocketing to success with personal determination and hard work.

Buchanan lifted his eyebrow a bit and summed my own thoughts perfectly, “Programs that direct bright kids who need a little extra attention, a little extra support – that support can be monetary or can just be on a personal level – but it points out what a difference that little support makes in the lives of good students.”   Laughing quietly, he went further, “Students that go through these programs are strong, remarkable students that we have good reason to be proud of.  How could you not get behind that?”

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