This article first appeared on the website of the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and the Suder Foundation.
Working with students who are first in their families to attend college is a privilege. I have been one of these fortunate individuals for nearly 14 years at the University of Florida. I believe every college and university should have full-time professionals, in student affairs or elsewhere, dedicated to advancing access and success for this underserved population.
Beyond those of us with formal student affairs training, there are a myriad of campus professionals who can and do support first-generation students. I had the honor of sitting down with two such professionals at UF, one a custodial associate director and the other, an assistant professor. I doubt the two would ever have crossed professional paths had it not been for this conversation. Something special happened during that hour over coffee. They revealed important insight about the linkage of passion and action. I offer edited excerpts from our conversation to encourage you to expand your view of what it means to maximize employee talent to achieve what we’re all ultimately here to do – mentor and care for students.
Tanya Hughes, Associate Director, Building Services: There’s not a check-box on my job description that says I need to mentor students. But so much of my job is mentoring students. Nobody wants to do the hard work that we do: clean toilets, scrub floors, wash windows. But our work is student success. Clean spaces promote learning and achievement. I also empower my team to bond with students. They know how to refer to resources when we sense students are struggling. Parents trust us to keep an eye on their kids and we take that responsibility seriously. Yes, we’re here to clean, but we’re also here to connect and care for students. Not everyone on campus understands the vital role we play in student success, but I do and my team does. We are humble; we don’t boast. But I feel pretty sure that my custodial team has saved student lives. I definitely know we’ve impacted them. That’s what matters.
Dr. Jaime Ruiz, Assistant Professor, Computer & Information Science & Engineering: I agree with Tanya; I love mentoring students. I also feel fortunate that my department supports me in this endeavor. In higher education, “doing diversity work” is talked about as important, but sometimes it’s all lip service, and action rarely or never happens. In my department, diversity work isn’t merely lip service; we take action.
I hire only first-generation students to work in my research lab. They are incredibly bright students who struggle at first with imposter syndrome (the feeling that they’re not as competent as others perceive them to be) but the more success they experience and the more rapport we build, they thrive. I enjoy modeling for them the importance of striking a balance in college between having a good time and focusing on their studies. I wish some of my colleagues were able to strike a balance for themselves. It’s sad to me that according to research and my own observations, job satisfaction diminishes after a faculty member earns tenure. Mentoring students is the most satisfying part of my job and as I actively work towards tenure myself, I model and remind myself of that important balance. I try to live what I teach.
Jaime: I learned about UF’s commitment to first-generation students when I attended New Faculty Orientation in 2016. When I decided I’d hire only first-generation students in my lab, not only was I overwhelmed by the number of students interested in the positions, I was also overwhelmed by how to decide among so many outstanding, high-quality students. I had the expectation that first-generation students would be strong students. However, the applications didn’t just represent strong students but some of the best students UF has to offer. Knowing I had only two positions, I immediately began sharing the applications with colleagues in hopes that I could place more students with research mentors.
As a faculty member, I realize some first-generation students may be intimidated initially but with our monthly social activities and the way I try to empower them [in my lab], I think they quickly come to see that I’m in their corner. I have provided first-generation students with research opportunities, and they have helped me advance my research.
Tanya: I have so much passion for custodial work, and it’s important to me that our halls are clean for students and their families. I sent my son to college and I fought the urge to scrub his room and bathroom. You either have a passion, or you don’t. As a supervisor for the past few decades, I seek to hire those that display a passion for this work.
Building a university culture of mentoring and supporting students should encourage all professionals, no matter their role, to infuse passion for students into their work. Maybe we need teams of professionals dedicated to talent management and student success who create engaging opportunities to build this campus-wide culture. Maybe we need to listen more deeply to students and consider their holistic experience as a student on our campus. Perhaps just talking to talented colleagues who “get it” like Tanya and Jaime are a start. When we come together, sometimes over coffee, it’s amazing how we’re reminded of the tremendous impact that we can achieve together. I’m proud to work in concert with both Tanya and Jaime, as well as many others at the University of Florida for whose university contributions and passion for students are one in the same. Go Gators!
To learn more about first-generation student initiatives at UF, visit: firstgeneration.ufsa.ufl.edu/.
Dr. Leslie Pendleton is the Senior Director of the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program in the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Florida. During her tenure at UF, Leslie has led the effort to champion first-generation, low-income college students and in 2009, was named the inaugural director of the now nationally-recognized MFOS program.