Setting the Path

First-at-LAS program provides crucial support for first-generation college students

Student posing for a photo

“Being first-gen can be an advantage, and my faculty mentor helped me see that. You can make your own path. I can figure it out, exploring it the way I want to,” says Reneen Allen, a sophomore Biological Sciences major, who is part of the First-at-LAS program at UIC’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS). Encouraging and acknowledging the strengths of first-generation students is one of the key goals of the program, which was launched in fall 2019, in honor of national First-Generation College Student Day.

Designed to support pride in identity and academic success for first-generation college students, the program strives to cultivate the right conditions that will lead to the academic success, retention and graduation of first-generation students.

“First-at-LAS emphasizes that first-gen students have assets they came here with, which we want to harness,” says Rosilie Hernández, professor and LAS associate dean for student academic affairs, who leads the program along with Marisol Mastrangelo, assistant director for student success and Retention.

Being first-gen can be an advantage, and my faculty mentor helped me see that. You can make your own path.

Reneen Allen
Dr. Rosilie Hernandez headshot

With 44 percent of LAS first-year students identifying as first-generation and 34 percent of all LAS students being first-generation, LAS was well-served to support the population. “These are often students who have had to overcome a lot to make it here, and once they’re here we want to make sure they embrace an LAS education in a way that will give them the tools for whatever path they embark upon. My goal is to show first-gens that their future is open to whatever passions and strengths they have,” says Hernández, herself a first-generation college graduate.

Key initiatives of the program include: a collaboration with LAS 110, the College’s first-year seminar; the Student Drop-In Hour Project designed to encourage interactions with faculty; the Tell Me Your Story campaign, allowing students to tell their stories; the Faculty-Student Mentorship Program; and the forthcoming First-Gen Student Board, which aims to develop voice and leadership skills.

“First-gen students might not know where to go with their questions when they get to college, so much of the Tell Me Your Story campaign was letting students know that they don’t have to go through the journey alone. There’s an entire community to support them. We wanted them to know that we are here for them and they can talk to us,” explains Mastrangelo.

My goal is to show first-gens that their future is open to whatever passions and strengths they have.

Rosilie Hernández
Four students posing while holding up a red t-shirt that says UIC First at LAS

Another focus of First-at-LAS is making better connections between faculty and students. Programs like the Faculty-Student Mentorship program, which launched in spring 2020, help create a culturee of communication between faculty and students.

“The program gave me the chance to connect with a professor who happened also to be first generation, which made me feel more comfortable. Seeing her success gave me confidence,” shares Darren Price, a sophomore Biological Sciences major. In addition to gaining confidence, Price has learned about internships and networking opportunities through the mentorship program.

For Leslie Marcos, a transfer student from Morton College and Biological Sciences major, navigating the resources and campus was initially daunting. But being part of First-at-LAS helped her gain access to practical resources and instilled a sense of belonging. “It’s important to remember that we are here because we are capable of succeeding and knowing I belong and am at the same level as my peers makes me feel good,” she says.

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