University earns national recognition for support of first-generation students

The University of Miami was just recognized as a First Forward Institution by NASPA, the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and The Suder Foundation. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

By Ashley A. Williams

The University of Miami was just recognized as a First Forward Institution by NASPA, the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and The Suder Foundation. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

University earns national recognition for support of first-generation students

By Ashley A. Williams
The University of Miami is recognized for its commitment to improving experiences and outcomes of first-generation students.

Rising senior Derek Auguste served 11 years in the military before he decided to enroll in college. As a nontraditional, first-generation student, Auguste came to rely on the University of Miami Office of Academic Enhancement (OAE) to navigate college.

Now, as Auguste prepares to send his daughter off to college, he’s not surprised that the University of Miami was just recognized as a First Forward Institution for helping students like him make the transition to academia.

Bestowed by NASPA, the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and The Suder Foundation, the First Forward designation recognized the OAE’s Empower Me First unit spearheaded by Whitley Johnson. The senior academic advisor for diversity and inclusion supports 1,700 first-generation undergraduate students. Founded three years ago, Empower Me First includes a mentorship aspect that pairs a faculty or staff member with sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

With the new designation, the OAE will receive professional development opportunities, community-building experiences, and a first look at NASPA’s Center for First-generation Student Success, which was founded in 2017 as a resource for evidence-based practices and professional development. As a First Forward Institution, institutional representatives will have the benefit of the center’s workshops, monthly check-ins, goal setting, and opportunities to engage with peer and aspirational institutions.

“Every campus is different, with different resources and challenges, so it’ll be great to be able to speak with leaders in the field about best approaches and to network with colleagues you can reach out to and say, ‘Hey what’s your institution doing?”’ Johnson said. ‘“We’re thinking about this and we see you’re already doing that.”’

For Auguste, who is majoring in political science and minoring in philosophy, “being 20-something years older than a lot of my classmates” was challenging. But he soon felt at home with the one-on-one advising, academic advocacy, financial aid assistance, referrals, mentorship, and programmatic outreach that the OAE provides.

“The OAE and Whitley really offer that unbiased support that you need,” he said.

Jaislene Viñas, a junior majoring in health sciences, said she knew within minutes of talking to Johnson that she was in great hands. “She offered me a box of tissues, a folder with information about the Empower Me First program, and one sentence that I will never forget: ‘Breathe, I know it feels difficult but you will get through this.’”

A native of the Dominican Republic now from Providence, Rhode Island, Viñas said she knew she could be whoever and whatever she wanted because of OAE’s support. “Before UM, I had to change a lot of my identity to simply fit in both socially and academically. Transferring into UM, I no longer felt the intense pressure as a first-generation student. While the anxiety was still there, this institution allowed me to be myself.”

Learn more about first-generation efforts at the University of Miami and Empower Me First.


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