Building the Bridge as a Mentor to First-Generation College Students | Impact Monthly


by Susie Schainost, M.Ed, M.D.S
VP Education - Image Impact International

Many first-generation college students need the support of a mentor, a person who has the experiential knowledge that only comes from walking the post-secondary education walk by attending college.

The background of first-generation students can include supportive families, but for some, their circumstances can also include a variety of dynamics, such as:

·       Income that does not support the cost of tuition

·       Family who prefers going to work immediately after completing high school

·       Family that speaks languages other than English

·       Home / culture where the education system is different than the United States

Many first-generation students come from high schools with college counselor programs that help build the foundation of support. These programs guide students with Advanced Placement course enrollment, applications for college enrollment, scholarships, and financial aid. At Image Impact International, our focus is to be the bridge out of high school that supports the first-generation college student through college and into a career.

What can we do to better mentor first-generation college students?

Being a mentor to a first-generation college student can be much like being an explorer. Mentoring should include research on the mentor's part. Here are some ground-building strategies that mentors who work with first-generation college students can use to counsel with usefulness and make a rewarding difference.

1) Take notes during initial conversations and meetings.

Taking notes while listening can better help the mentor research useful programs, to not repeat steps already taken by the mentee, and to remember important information. As a mentor, make sure to ask the mentee, "How may I help you?"

2) Communicate with understanding.

Choosing the place to go to college could have been a huge decision for the mentee. To avoid an initial conversation that may seem nosey or interrogative, prepare before your first few conversations. Research the mentee's educational background as a way to learn about and understand the steps already taken. I'M FIRST! is an online community for first-generation college students, their mentors, and supporters who have resources, blogs, conversations, and publications.

3) Learn about the mentee's chosen college.

Does the mentee know the education requirements needed for the chosen career and / or profession? Take the time to research:

·       programs available on campus,

·       community outreach connectors with similar interests,

·       degree requirements and milestones,

·       language learning and tutoring assistance programs (if needed), and

·       financial aid, grants, and scholarship opportunities (offered not only by the college, but also offered by companies and organizations).

The mentee's income level may qualify for fee-waiver assistance in applications and programs. This link to NAFSA'S TIPS FOR FINANCIAL AID offers financial aid tips for first-generation college students through NAFSA: Association of International Educators. NAFSA is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange.

4) Create career building conversations and connections. 

Deciding what direction to go in college is an important life decision. Remember, as a first-generation college student, the mentee may not have been guided or encouraged to go to college. A mentee may be uncertain about applying personal strengths and talents to college programs and experiences. For help deciding direction, PATH FINDERS offers tests and guidance for natural talents, aptitude, and career paths from other first-generation college students themselves.

A mentor's research about foundational experiences can help build the relationship bridge between the mentor and the mentee. The research can also create helpful connections faster because the mentor took the time to care, to considerately connect, and to communicate with impact.

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