Approaching the college admissions process is daunting for any high school student, but for Ale Burdiss, a first-generation student from Charleston, South Carolina, there was no roadmap to navigate the process.
Despite the uncertainty, Burdiss was able to feel confident committing to becoming a Gamecock.
“I knew that USC had the No. 1 freshman experience program in the country, and when they invited me to be a part of Capstone and I was introduced to the Opportunity Scholars Program, I knew that they would allow me to have a good transition [to college] despite the fact that my parents didn’t go,” says Burdiss.
Thanks to the TRIO Opportunity Scholars Program, a federally funded initiative to provide programmatic and financial support to low-income first-generation college students, Burdiss has access to a tightly knit community, smaller class sizes, dedicated professors committed to first-gen students’ academic and professional success, and additional opportunities for tutoring, mentoring and leadership.
But not every first-generation student has access to the same level of support. Federal grant funding for USC’s TRIO Opportunity Scholars Program only covers 400 of the more than 7,000 first-generation students on campus.
That’s why the university is committing to providing more comprehensive support, including a First-Generation Center launching in August 2024, a living and learning community for first-gen students, and an expanding partnership with the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
Althea Counts, director of TRIO programs, and Shelley Dempsey, assistant provost for graduation and retention, joined forces with university leadership to work toward this unprecedented level of institutional commitment to the graduation, retention and success of first-generation students.
With the recent restructuring of the Graduation and Retention Network (GARNET), Counts and Dempsey knew the university was in a prime position to increase its involvement with NASPA and undertake new measures for first-generation students.
Leveraging space in the recently renovated space in Maxcy College, the new First-Generation Center will house a faculty-led first-generation living-learning community, a space for students to gather for academic and professional support, and mentoring “pods” matching each incoming first-generation student with a faculty, staff and student mentor. The new resources will be available to all first-generation students, regardless of whether they qualify for TRIO or live in the Maxcy community. The center hopes to eventually serve first-generation graduate student populations as well.
“There are more than 75 faculty, staff and students serving on committees to ensure our First-Generation Center is putting into practice the best research on this population,” says Dempsey. “We do a wonderful job admitting a diverse student population, including first-gen, and now we want to make sure they have every opportunity to succeed on our campus and walk across that stage as graduates.”
In partnership with the NASPA, USC also enters the new year as a member of the NASPA’s First Scholars program, which will increase the level of support the organization provides in jumpstarting its first-gen initiatives.
“NASPA and its Center for First Generation Student Success will guide us how to make some systematic, evidence-based changes to processes based on our data,” says Counts. “We’ll be able to institutionalize changes so things are better for first-gen students on our campus.”
The university’s commitment to first-generation students starts at the top. President Michael Amiridis, Provost Donna Arnett and Vice President for Student Affairs and Academic Support J. Rex Tolliver were all first-generation students.
“Being able to provide students access to not only an affordable education but a community to help them navigate the complexities of being a college student is critical to our mission as a university,” says Arnett.
Burdiss, an aspiring clinical psychologist for at-risk youth who is majoring in psychology and minoring in counseling education, recognizes the value of the guidance she has received. She has seized opportunities — from tutoring her peers in OSP to working in a neurodevelopmental lab on Fragile X syndrome — and she’s set to graduate early with a publication already under her belt. Burdiss even presented the publication at a national conference in Denver alongside co-author Madeline Saunders, an instructor in the College of Education’s Counselor Education and Supervision Program.
Burdiss is excited to see the university mobilizing at the highest level to get the First-Generation Center and other support initiatives off the ground. As not only a first-generation student but also the secretary and outreach chair for GARNET, she knows just how much potential these opportunities have to shape the futures of students whose backgrounds are similar to her own.
“I’m going to be able to make a big difference in my life and my family’s lives because of being able to go [to college], which is something my parents didn’t know was available to them, something that other people in my hometown didn’t ever know,” says Burdiss. “This first-generation center will allow a lot of South Carolinians to realize that they could do it, to apply when they think they have no chance. It's really special to me.”