5 Ways Your Housing Office Can Engage First Generation Students

In my work as a Residence Hall Director, I’ve seen many different aspects of campus programming, financial literacy education, roommate agreements, and housing traditions. What I don’t see much of is intentional support for first-generation college students in residential housing.

I was a first-generation college student, and I remember the lack of resources and the feeling of being an “outsider.” I remember navigating my way through a hectic Week of Welcome feeling lost.

As time grew, I became more acclimated to residents on my floor, becoming more social. But I also withdrew from courses and changed my major. I didn’t quite understand the effect of dropping below “full-time” student status or ignoring basic courses during my first fall semester.

Now that I work in housing, I consistently work to bring a greater focus toward supporting first-generation students in the residence halls.

Residence halls have the power to influence a student’s college experience.

Concepts like Living Learning Communities work to increase student engagement and, in the long term, student success. But LLCs specifically for first-generation college students are typically met with raised eyebrows.

Some argue that having first-generation college students living in a separate community contributes to the feeling of isolation, while others argue that it may be beneficial to have students who share a common characteristic be closer to one another.

Some schools, like Clemson University, have included an optional FIRST program for incoming first-generation college students, also known as their LLC for First-Generation Success Program. The program focuses on academic and social/interpersonal support, and while some first-generation students may feel that a specific housing community is too much, others might enjoy the additional, focused support. Over time, Clemson’s FIRST students have shared their personal success stories, which the university uses as testimonials for the college’s first-generation student support system.   

Not every college campus offers First-Generation College resident living — or even programming specifically catered to first-gen students. So how can we effectively engage and educate our student staff within the residential halls, and how can residential living be more inclusive toward first-generation college students?

1. Supportive, intentional conversations

First-generation college students sometimes make the effort to apply to college on their own with little to no support. Because first-generation students may not have outside support to guide and prepare them for the college experience, sometimes the places where they can find support and affirmation on campus come as a surprise.

In the residence halls, student staff are required to do building-wide rounds, focused programming, health & safety inspections, and sometimes, wellness checks. Having intentional conversations with residents is an important component to ensure that not only are staff members checking off boxes on their list of required duties, but they’re working to help students feel seen.

2. Inclusive programming on financial literacy

Entering into college with little to no knowledge about financial aid and credit hour importance can be a significant stressor for first-generation college students. Institutions make the effort of introducing financial aid sessions or credit hour importance through orientation and online modules, but these programs are rarely effective at actually educating students.

If students had more interactive programming geared toward understanding how credit hour systems work, time management, and campus work opportunities, first-generation students may begin their college journey feeling more prepared. The benefits of interactive programming aren’t restricted to first-generation students, either — all students deserve to begin college with a strong foundational understanding of their institution’s systems and offices.

A few examples of financial literacy programs include playing a game of “Wheel of Finances,” or having residents create a semesterly vision board of their financial goals. At the beginning of each semester, I encourage student staff to collaborate with financial aid to host an interactive program on the importance of grants, loans, scholarships, and financial wellness.

Programming should absolutely happen year-round, but by thoughtfully crafting programs for early in the academic year, staff can help students start the year on the right foot.

3. Incorporate apps or social media

Have you ever used the app Meetup? As an early-career student affairs professional who has relocated multiple times, I have become quite acquainted with it. Meetup helps connect people with similar interests. If you’re new to an area, it’s a great (and fun) tool. Design a program modeled after the Meetup approach for students in your residence halls — the niche events and groups can help students feel a stronger sense of community with their neighbors. It could function as an on-going semester group for first-generation students to gather once a month, or something individually coordinated based on the needs of the residential community itself.

You could also make a Facebook group for the residents in your hall. Facebook groups allow students to connect virtually, providing support and connection opportunities for students who may be more shy and nervous about approaching their fellow residents in-person. And did you know that anyone can design and submit a Snapchat geofilter? Build community in your hall with a branded Snapchat filter – you can even use them for fun social media contests later in the year.

4. Community meals

In addition to programming, student staff can plan potluck style communal meals with their first-generation residents. There’s a reason why breaking bread together is such a stronger builder of community. Sharing meals allows students to have intentional conversations and invest time in building relationships and community. These can be set-up on a rotating basis and may change themes each month.

5. Building support year-round

The type of support a first-generation student needs depends strongly on the individual. If more support were offered to first-generation students in the residential halls, we may see an increase in student happiness and success. Cultivating positive relationships within the residence halls and creating inclusive communities so all residents feel welcome is the overall goal.

How do you build support for first-generation students in your residence halls? Let us know @themoderncampus.

Heather Macon

About the author: Heather J. Macon (she/her) is a writer and higher education professional. She earner both her bachelor's & master's degrees from The University of Missouri, St. Louis in Broadcast Journalism and Adult & Higher Education. Learn how we can help get your students involved.