First-generation students face different barriers to success from their non-first-generation peers. Accessing opportunities, managing expectations, and matching the language of academia can be a challenge. And these barriers prevent many students from realizing all of their opportunities.
“There is a coded language in institutions of higher education,” said Ben Bullock ‘23, a first-generation student from the United Kingdom. “Without access to these different codes, it can be really tricky for first-generation students to benefit fully from everything Wabash offers.”
Acknowledging the difficulties they face, Wabash has tried to support first-gen students in myriad ways — from official programming to fostering a sense of community.
“Coming to Wabash as a first-generation college student was definitely a challenge, but my professors, peers, and mentors never lowered their expectations of me,” said Bryce McCullough ‘23, a first-gen student from Greensburg, IN. “The resources and opportunities here have enabled me to be successful,” said McCullough. “I am thankful to Wabash for being a place where first-generation college students like myself can overcome barriers to thrive.”
“I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten through my first semester at Wabash without the support I received from the WLAIP faculty.”Ben Sampsell ‘24
WLAIP, the Wabash Liberal Arts Immersion Program, is aimed at equalizing the disparity between majority and non-majority students. The summer program prepares incoming students for success at and beyond Wabash. Students in the program receive their first college credits and connect with professors and classmates, establishing networks vital to student success.
Incoming students are eligible for WLAIP if they fit at least two of three categories: first-generation students, students of color, and pell-eligible students. Dean Todd McDorman, Acting Dean of the College and Professor of Rhetoric, described the program’s success at retaining underrepresented students.
“Through the first three graduating cohorts, we have a lot of good signs of success,” said McDorman. “One of the things we’ve sought to do in that program is to close the gap between first-generation college students and non-first-generation college students. Recent analyses… have shown that students who were eligible for WLAIP and went through the program are persisting [at Wabash] 18 percentage points higher than students who are eligible, but not enrolled in the program.” Dr. Robert Horton, Faculty Coordinator for Retention and Professor of Psychology, contextualized the program’s success.
“It’s the biggest effect of a program like this that I’ve ever seen,” said Horton. “There are some attitudinal responses from surveys that shed light on why it is that my WLAIP guys are more likely to retain and graduate. They feel more connected to each other. They tend to do some things in class. They’re a little less likely to miss class, less likely to be late, and a little less likely to not do homework. They’re more likely to feel connected to the College as compared to this relevant comparison group. So that gives us a little bit of light on why that might happen.”
Those success stories are more than mere statistics — they are crucial victories for successful Wabash men. Ben Sampsell ‘24, a first-gen student from Mexico, said, “I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten through my first semester at Wabash without the support I received from the WLAIP faculty. The transition to college is hard for almost any high school student, but coming from the southernmost part of Mexico my case was different from the outset. WLAIP gave me the tools and friendships that have allowed me to transition from a traditional Mexican school system into the liberal arts.”
Due to the program’s success, Wabash received a $1 million grant last year from the Lilly Endowment to fund WLAIP for three more years.
But first-gen students face additional challenges even after they graduate from college. In a 2021 study, researchers from Michigan State, Iowa, and Minnesota found that first-generation students face increased barriers in the job market when compared with non-first-generation students with the same degree from the same school.
One of the causes of this disparity is a gap in access to opportunities outside the classroom. Nationwide, first-generation students are less likely to participate in internships, extracurriculars, and research opportunities than their non-first-generation counterparts. And these opportunities matter in the job market. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that college graduates who had internships were 90 percent more likely to receive a job offer than college graduates who did not.
WLAIP also addresses that internship access disparity. After the initial WLAIP summer, the program connects students with paid research and internship opportunities. If a student in the program wishes to accept an unpaid internship, they can receive a $3,200 stipend to make that opportunity possible. This generous funding levels the playing field, making unpaid internships, which often provide essential professional experience, available to more students — regardless of financial background. Dr. Horton explained that around 90 percent of WLAIP students participate in an internship connected or funded through the program.
McDorman described several other programs that, though they may not exclusively benefit first-generation students, improve first-generation student retention and access to campus resources. The Writing Center and the Quantitative Skills Center provide all students opportunities to improve their classroom skills, learning from other successful students. And last summer, the College began a summer course program to help students behind in credits get back on track. For underrepresented students, who are less likely to enter Wabash with transferable credits from college prep courses, the Wabash summer course program provides an opportunity to level the playing field.
“Being a first-generation college student is important to me … it gives me hope that my experience is not a rare one for the next generation.”Bryce McCullough ‘23
Dr. Zachery Koppelmann, Director of the Writing Center, described the role of the Writing Center in supporting first-generation students.
“Writing centers have historically served writers from less privileged backgrounds—including first-generation students,” said Koppelmann. “One of the challenges for first-generation students is that they lack the tradition of a college education, which often means they are more comfortable with less formal, more conversational speech. This is even more pronounced in their writing, which is where the Wabash College Writing Center plays a critical role.”
Taken together, Wabash’s programs strengthen a sense of community and support first-gen success. And along with that success comes crucial discussions about what it means to be a first-generation student.
“Being a first-generation college student is important to me because it means that with a lot of hard work and a good amount of help from my parents, teachers, coaches, and my community, I can achieve my goal of receiving a quality education to better my future,” said Bryce McCullough ‘23. “But more importantly, it gives me hope that my experience is not a rare one for the next generation.”
First-generation identity was personal for Dean McDorman, a first-generation student himself. McDorman initially planned to attend a community college, but a private college offered him a generous scholarship offer that expanded his opportunities.
“It probably isn’t an exaggeration to say that it changed my life and it just opened up so many possibilities for me,” he said. “And it’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the things we do at Wabash for first-generation college students. I feel like I know firsthand how much difference the sort of education we can provide can make for them.”
McDorman isn’t alone — many Wabash faculty members were first-generation students.
“I think it is sometimes surprising to people [just] how many of our staff were the first in their families to graduate from college,” said Dr. Horton. “About 20% of our staff [is first-generation].” First-generation identity inevitably shapes a campus community. The fact that so many faculty members were first-generation impacts how Wabash continues to welcome and support first-gen students.
“I admire my colleagues who work so hard to make it so that students here don’t have to stumble through that,” said Dean McDorman. “I think it speaks a lot to the dedication that faculty and staff here have here. And it’s a large part of Wabash’s identity.”
On Monday, the College will celebrate first-generation students and faculty for the annual First-Generation College Celebration. First-gen students and faculty will receive a Wabash “First-Gen and Proud” t-shirt and are invited to gather on the mall.