Photo: Inclusive Programs Coordinator Brian McCaster, alum and donor Lewis Caswell, and some students from the 2022 Summer Start program cohort.
Second-year civil and environmental engineering student Megan Badinski didn’t know what to expect when she decided to attend the University of South Carolina.
She knew that navigating college would not be the same as navigating high school, and as a first-generation student, she felt that her classmates with parents who attended college had a better level of understanding of what they were getting themselves into.
Although she had encouragement and support from her parents, she couldn’t use their lived experience to help guide her through the transition. Badinski was worried about the course load, logistics of the day-to-day, finding school pride without having a direct previous tie to the university and the freedom and responsibility that comes from being a college student.
“My parents, growing up, they just did not have the same opportunities that I've had,” Badinski said. “So, it was always very important for me to go to college. But it was kind of weird, because since neither of them went, I didn't know what to expect.”
Badinski is one of about 150 first-generation, first-year students that attend the College of Engineering and Computing (CEC) each year. Knowing that the college was rigorous enough on its own, she decided to join the CEC Summer Start program — a three-week residential experience designed to support first-generation students’ transitions to university life.
This program was created with the intention of increasing graduation rates, eliminating some roadblocks typically faced by first-generation students and forming a sense of belonging among these students.
“No two first generation college students look the same. They don't come from the same background,” said Brian McCaster, the inclusive programs coordinator in the college who oversaw the Summer Start program. “They have different struggles and some of their struggles are more deeply buried than others. We wanted to support them through their differences.”
He found that a key determinant of students’ potential to achieve comes from having a support network of like-minded individuals to work through concerns and simply being empowered by being together. With the Summer Start program, he discovered that replacing equity with engagement in DEI efforts — built on exposure, conversations and connections that students wouldn’t have elsewhere — was key to the program’s and students’ success.
“There's nothing that I did special besides create an environment for them to build a community that they felt supported in,” said McCaster. “Their success is all theirs.”
The program allowed participants to live on campus during three weeks in July. Thanks to generous donations from CEC alumni, Lewis Caswell and Barbara Rusinko, Boeing Co., Dominion Energy, Fluor Corporation and others, students did not pay for the program and were each awarded a $1,000 annual scholarship. In addition to this, students got to experience college in an intense way. They attended orientation, registered for classes, took a three-credit hour course, received a mentor for the upcoming year and partook in fun activities.
“The vision is more students, more interaction and more cross-campus collaboration so that all students are engaged with one another.”
- Inclusive Programs Coordinator Brian McCaster
Badinski said that first-generation students are their own role models, paving their own way to success. The program not only helped her get acclimated and have a social network established before the school year began, but the community she built during those three weeks inspired her to create her own club for first-generation students in the CEC.
Badinski and a friend wanted to extend their community beyond the summer and provide a place for everyone to come together once a month “as a support-system kind of thing,” she said.
The Summer Start program successfully built a community in which students pushed each other to succeed. The college’s Senior Associate Dean Jed Lyons noted the impact of those struggling academically helping those out struggling socially and vice-versa, all on the basis of a shared identity and knowing they wouldn’t face their uncertainties alone. CEC Summer Start students had a significantly higher GPA than all CEC freshmen and a higher retention rate than all first-generation CEC freshmen.
With this success, Lyons and McCaster hope to expand the program — providing more students the support and opportunity to adapt to the college lifestyle prior to the fall starting by including different disciplines and possibly replicating the program with different populations. It’s all a part of a long-term goal of the college to support students of all types.
Through a support system that instills valuable lessons, McCaster said, “The vision is more students, more interaction and more cross-campus collaboration so that all students are engaged with one another.”