New Colgate University Program Supports First-Generation Students

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Following a successful five-year pilot study, Colgate University will launch First@Colgate, a program to provide essential support and resources for undergraduates who will be the first in their families to attain a degree from a four-year institution of higher education. 

“Colgate’s Third-Century Plan clearly states the University’s fundamental obligation to recruit diverse students from a variety of economic backgrounds — many of whom will be forging a new path,” said Paul J. McLoughlin II, vice president and dean of the college. “We must do everything in our power to see them thrive.”

First@Colgate programming will range from peer mentoring to community building. It will address the needs of all first-generation students — including athletes, international students, and members of the University’s various scholar programs — by illuminating resources available through Career Services; the Center for Learning, Teaching, and Research; the counseling center, registrar’s office, academic advising, and the various support structures that Colgate offers.

Portrait of RaJhai Spencer, assistant dean of administrative advising
RaJhai Spencer, assistant dean of administrative advising

RaJhai Spencer, assistant dean of administrative advising, will oversee the program as its new director. Spencer is a first-generation graduate of Duke University with a master’s in sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She came to Colgate from Florida State University, where she was senior associate director at the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement and associate director for academic support and student success. Spencer currently advises members of Colgate’s OUS Scholars program, Hancock Commons, and athletic teams as well as students in the first-generation pilot program.

“I am both excited and honored to take on this new role as director of First@Colgate. As a first-generation college graduate, I understand that a community of people who are invested in your success is just as important as access to resources and opportunities within higher education. I believe the First@Colgate program will bring together this community from across campus along with all of the resources and opportunities to ensure that first-generation students are successful at Colgate and beyond.”

Spencer will be supported by a new assistant director and a first-gen advisory board of faculty and staff, with liaisons in offices across the University. This group will be charged with ensuring campuswide collaboration and cohesion. This advisory board will work to connect the more than 75 faculty and staff colleagues, who identify themselves as the first in their families to attend college, in order to provide additional opportunities for connection and support at Colgate.

The National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education finds that one third of all incoming college students will soon be first-generation undergraduates. They also note that first-generation students are more likely to feel out of place on a college campus and less likely to take advantage of its resources. First-generation students are half as likely as their peers to graduate on time — even at the nation’s leading institutions.

“While we acknowledge the sobering research, we will draw on our traditions to create a different outcome for first-generation students at this University,” McLoughlin said. “Colgate is known for its close connections. Taking care of each other is a part of who we are.”

First@Colgate is one of several University initiatives intended to increase access. Colgate joined QuestBridge earlier this year — the organization pairs bright students from low-income backgrounds with leading institutions of higher education. Meanwhile, in spite of the pandemic and its impact on the University’s budget, Colgate has held firm to its No-Loan Initiative, eliminating loans for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year.

As an increasing number of first-generation students respond to these and other efforts pursued by the University, the structures and resources to support them become even more vital.

“The trends are clear,” McLoughlin said. “Thankfully, so are the ways forward. We will offer the support that first-generation students need and deserve. Colgate admits only the brightest students from around the world. If you made it here, you earned it, and First@Colgate will provide a foundation for your long-term success.”