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Coffee and connections

UND’s new 1stG initiative is making a difference by offering resources and mentorship for First-Generation students

Kelsi Hatzenbuhler
Kelsi Hatzenbuhler, a native of Mandan, N.D., is a First-Generation student at UND, considering pursuit of a degree in counselling psychology. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Kelsi Hatzenbuhler couldn’t imagine a world without the love and support of her family.

But when she started her first semester at UND this fall, that love and support had to drive four hours back to her hometown of Mandan, N.D.

“I spent a majority of my time with my family throughout high school,” the freshman psychology major said. “When they left me — that was the hardest thing. I couldn’t go back to my dorm and have my mom there and tell her everything.”

Hatzenbuhler, the first in her family to attend a four-year college, wanted to seek out a new sense of community. That’s what brought her to “Coffee and Conversation” hosted by UND’s First-Generation college student initiative, “1stG.” The informal get-together is designed to link students with faculty and administrators who are First-Generation themselves, and includes information about campus resources, such as the Writing Center and TRIO Programs, which might benefit a student new to navigating college.

Hatzenbuhler has attended all three Coffee and Conversation events this semester, including the most recent in Merrifield Hall on Nov. 9. She says the support she’s received already has made her feel less alone.

“When I come here, I know the faces. They’re like friends to me,” Hatzenbuhler said. “They know me when I come now, so I know how much that’s done for me.”

Enough is enough

UND Associate Professor of English Crystal Alberts experienced college as a First-Generation student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. There, the small-town Minnesota native was welcomed into a constructed network of peer and faculty mentors who recognized her unique needs.

Alberts was open with her background when she began teaching at UND in 2007, and many First-Generation students came to her for advice. She remembers one student who found navigating university life too difficult and ultimately gave up on a degree.

“I decided ‘enough was enough,’ and I didn’t want that to happen to any more students,” Alberts said.

Shane Winterhalter, Crystal Alberts, Kelsi Hatzenbuhler, Cassie Blair
Shane Winterhalter (far left), coordinator of the UND Writing Program, talks to First-Generation students Kelsi Hatzenbuhler (center) and Cassie Blair, while UND Associate Professor of English Crystal Alberts looks on from the background. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

This spring, Alberts collaborated with other First-Generation colleagues in the UND English Department and brought the concept of the 1stG Initiative to the College of Arts & Sciences. Associate dean Karyn Plumm was immediately sold on the idea, being First-Generation herself.

“Even though they’re getting financial support, tutoring support and that sort of thing on the student services side, nobody from that area is going to be writing them letters of recommendation or getting them into internships,” Plumm explained. “They have to start talking to faculty. They have to start to get to know them. So we wanted to make a way to make that happen more organically.”

The group’s first step was designing and distributing 1stG stickers to identify the offices of First-Generation faculty and administrators. They also developed a 1stG page on the College of Arts and Sciences website and a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter.

This semester, 1stG invited sociology lecturer Allison Hurst to campus to share her research on First-Generation students. Next spring, the UND Writers Conference will feature author Jennine Capó Crucet, who has written about her first-gen experience for The New York Times. But 1stG organizers are pushing to do more, including a specific orientation day for the families of first-gen students.

“One of the big barriers to First-Generation students is having parents who don’t understand, and sometimes aren’t supportive,” Plumm said. “So we want to show them what it’s like and what the students are going through.”

Erasing mysteries

According to a study by the Office of Institutional Research, 20 percent of UND freshmen were First-Generation in 2015. But the focus of 1stG isn’t solely on freshmen. There’s also support for first-gen students like UND English senior Sandi Kruse, who is using her 1stG connections to learn more about applying to graduate school.

“That process is just so shrouded in mystery,” Kruse said. “My parents are really excited that I’m going to UND and that I’m looking to go to graduate school. But I think sometimes they don’t really know what I’m talking about.”

This feeling of uncertainty was once shared by UND President Mark Kennedy.

“I had a loving and supporting family that was vital for my success as a First-Generation college graduate,” Kennedy said. “What I most missed was someone who would challenge me to understand how putting in the extra effort to get improved grades would open more options for graduate programs.”

Hatzenbuhler looks forward to pursuing a UND graduate degree in counseling psychology in four years and feels 1stG has set her up for success. She urges UND’s next wave of First-Generation students to follow her lead — and grab coffee with a professor.

“Get out there and make yourself a little bit uncomfortable,” she said. “That’s how I ended up making a ton of connections with people who have the potential to propel me into things that I would have never known were there.”