Story by Amanda Mathis
For generations, Converse has been opening doors for students and fostering an environment where they can thrive. Our programming and support for First-Generation college students is no different. Funded by our recent Power: Ed grant for First-Generation student programming, Converse recently curated transformational experiences for first-generation students to advance their academic success, build community, and become transformative leaders. For the first half of 2023, Converse organized trips, workshops, and community-building activities.
Read more about some of the highlights for our First-Generation students.
Spring Immersion Experience to Memphis, Tennessee
The spring immersion experience was an interdisciplinary trip designed by the Converse College for Women (CCW), the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the First-Generation Program as an alternative spring break experience co-led by Chandra Hopkins, Dean of the CCW, Danielle Stone, Chief Inclusive Excellence Officer, Daphnie Glenn, Director of First-Gen Programs, and Karen Mims, former Admissions Coordinator and Assistant to the CCW.
A campus visit from Dr. Russell Wigginton, President of the National Civil Rights Museum, inspired the trip to Memphis. Trip leaders knew that the Museum, the city’s history of music and culture, and its pivotal role and ongoing work within the Civil Rights movement would give students an incredible learning opportunity. Seven students were nominated to attend based on their involvement as student leaders on campus, their engagement as artists, athletes, and student scholars, and their contributions to Converse’s community. Three of the seven students who attended had never flown on a plane before this trip. The opportunity to fly for the first time and learn to navigate a new city became an invaluable “real world” experience for them.
While in Memphis, our Converse group of eleven toured the National Civil Rights Museum and met personally with the Museum’s Collection Manager, Michelle Lopez, and the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Grants, Tiffany Ford. The staff spent quality time with our students, answering questions regarding the full range of their work, such as how they respectfully acquire and preserve historical artifacts, including the actual hotel room Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in before his murder.
They also spoke about how they engage with current Memphis artists who paint and create mixed media to speak out on the ongoing work to end the city’s police brutality. The profound lessons revealed through the Museum’s exhibits and the difficult dialogues the group shared – including the legacy of slavery in our nation and the continued inequities, such as those found in predominantly black and urban public schools – bonded the participants together.
These discussions of shared goals and dreams were invaluable and deepened the mentorship and connection between trip leaders and students.
The group had fun together on the trip. They laughed and cheered on each other through rounds of bowling and connected over shared meals in iconic downtown restaurants. The chance to eat together and reflect on the work of the Museum, as well as each student’s goals and interests, was a great bonding experience. One young woman shared her plan to become a social worker, while a sophomore on the trip is exploring southern artists on his journey to becoming a working artist. These discussions of shared goals and dreams were invaluable and deepened the mentorship and connection between trip leaders and students.
Below are quotes from the students who went on the trip.
“This was such an AWESOME trip! It was the perfect balance between education, culture, and fun! I knew almost everybody on this trip so it was fun to hang out with them outside of campus. The students, including myself, are very close to the faculty members on the trip so it really felt like a normal trip rather than a school trip. I would love to see another trip like this on campus with another group of hard-working, involved, creative, and kind students. With the trip being ‘all-inclusive,’ I was able to enjoy this trip without having to worry about finances. I always felt safe and comfortable with our trip leaders and faculty members!”
– Luci Martinez-Olivares: Early Childhood Education, Child and Family Studies, Hispanic Studies Major.
“This Memphis trip was a great opportunity to connect with my history and culture. Memphis is a melting pot of black culture. Each city has a unique style and culture about it, but Memphis has a special component to embody black culture and history as a whole from multiple different places. Being on Beale St., eating at the local restaurants, and even being able to go to the National History Museum is an unforgettable experience!”
– Amaia Parkins ’26: Child and Family Studies Major and Member of Converse Women’s Basketball Team.
“Being able to experience something outside of my familiar surroundings allowed me to grow as an adult.”Donald Medley ’26
“I really appreciated the opportunity to see a city I’ve never been to before. Being able to experience something outside of my familiar surroundings allowed me to grow as an adult.”
– Donald Medley ’26: Art Major and Member of Converse Track & Field Team.
Spring Workshops & Rise Symposium
During Converse’s spring semester, we also included three workshops for our first-generation student population. These included a pop-in for study resources, a Travel Panel to encourage study-abroad experiences, and a Financial Literacy workshop.
In addition to events and workshops, Converse’s RISE Symposium (Research, Internship, and ArtS Experiential Learning) encouraged First-Generation participation, including the Director of First Generation Student Programs, Daphnie Glenn, on the Program Committee and as a judge for First-Generation Student awards.
Of the 101 RISE participants, 18 identify as First-Gen (17.8%).
All entries and students are featured in the RISE proceedings publication, and additional photos of our student participants are featured in our shared photos folder.
First-Generation Mentorship Program
Our First-Generation mentorship program continued in the spring semester, and included three outstanding mentors from South Carolina: Luci Martinez-Olivares , Shelisa Williams ’24, and Victoria Conner ’24.
Graduation Activities & Celebrations
At Converse University’s Commencement ceremonies, 35 First-Generation students graduated in the undergraduate Class of 2023. These students represented approximately 29% of the graduating class. Our campus hosted a special celebration to mark the First-generation milestones along with the traditional activities of baccalaureate and graduation proceedings. In addition to these outstanding seniors, 76 First-Generation students saw recognition on the Dean’s List for exemplary academic achievements.
Student retention and graduation rates have remained a priority as we piloted programming and experiences to build a strong identity of being “FIRST” and growing a cohort filled with pride at Converse. An indication of our success is in the numbers, with increasing enrollment and self-identification of undergraduate first-generation students over the past three years. We have seen an 87% increase in First-Generation students from Fall 2020 to Fall 2021 and another 35% increase from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022.
First-Generation students admitted in the Fall of 2022 represented over one-third of the first-year cohort, and we project this enrollment number to continue increasing. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which Converse utilizes, all students, including those who identify as FIRST, benefit from activities of engagement and building of relationships; these aspects, and the feeling of belonging, significantly impact the college experience for students.
Power: Ed Grant Support
Sparked by the resources of the Power: Ed grant, Converse enacted efforts to support this growing population by engaging students, faculty, and staff, as well as other educational partners. The grant aids in building identity and momentum for the program. It also inspired other campus projects and initiatives that will help sustain our efforts to support First-Gen students, including:
- Valkyrie Supply, our new basic needs hub, offering career clothing, school supplies, toiletries, and food to students in need.
- An Increase to Federal Student Worker wages for FY24
- Valkyrie Central, our new student enrollment hub for Admissions, Student Financial Services and the Registrar, to improve accessibility for students and parents.
Incorporating the efforts listed above, Converse University believes that adding diverse faculty and staff allows students to see “someone who looks like me” who has succeeded, thus encouraging students to persevere to graduation.
Efforts to increase the number of Black faculty and staff are yielding positive results with the addition of minority faculty and staff members in 2021, 2022, and 2023, including Dr. James Lies in Education and Program Director of Call Me MISTER; Dr. Adelaide Watson in Deaf Education; Dr. Deneisha Scott-Poe and Dr. A’lyric Miles in Marriage and Family Therapy; Wynton Stephens, Assistant Professor of Business Administration; Daphnie Glenn, Director of First Generation Programs and Student Success Initiatives; Jimmie Sanders, Admissions Counselor; and Adrian Stowe, Director of Residential Life and Student Conduct.
Lessons Learned and First-Generation Student Success Conference Highlights, Director Daphnie Glenn
“I have learned to have grace and always be student-centered in the position! Many of my initiatives have been great, but it’s always important to assess the student’s needs when creating programming. We had to pivot with our mentors and their responsibilities because we wanted to make sure they were also focused and receiving the necessary skills/enrichment. The highlight of the year was our graduation celebration, where we celebrated 35 First-Generation students who will go on to continue their education and start their professional careers!
On June 24-27, I was able to attend the 2023 NASPA First-Generation Student Success Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. This conference was filled with workshops and presentations catered to professionals working with first-generation, under-resourced, and at-promise students. The sessions gave me practical resources and best practices to implement at Converse in the coming years. It was very beneficial to network with other like-minded professionals.”
Continued Transformation at Converse
The grant from Power: Ed has been transformational. Over the past two years, Converse has grown its First-Generation program in many ways. But we are still going! We know that we must continue to grow and change with our increasing FIRST population, and we must remain relentlessly student-focused to ensure our efforts to create a sense of belonging and retain and graduate our students. We look forward to new goals and outcomes, including the following:
- Daphnie Glenn and Dr. Tori Good’s High Impact Practice (HIP) project, “First Gen (Undecided Majors) and PathwayU Life Compass,” assisted students who were considered part of the “undecided” major category and focused on First-Generation students who may be unsure of their path(s) upon and/or after post-graduation. While working on this project, Daphnie and Tori invested time and resources into mentoring, guiding, and advising 20 students toward positive outcomes using the PathwayU “Life Compass” software. Glenn and Good considered ways to sustain this work, including its impact. Learn more about their presentation here.
- Increase of First-Generation student participation in the 2024 RISE Symposium.
- Modify the FIRST mentoring program as it grows.
- Increase capacity with a Graduate Assistant and/or intern to manage the social media and programmatic activities. They will assist in idea creation, flyers, social media, and related data collection.
- Summer Bridge Program Model: this is in the early stages of research and development and includes academic and social outcomes related to bridging the gap between high school and college.
Converse’s First-Generation team is proud of the incredible opportunities we’ve provided for students. We look forward to continuing to welcome First-Generation students and families and offering support for students to become transformative leaders.