Proud to Be First Scholars Program aims to enhance opportunities for first-generation UMSL students
Economics Professor Emeritus Susan Feigenbaum is quick to point out the tremendous impact mentors have made on her life.
When she arrived at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in the late 1980s, Feigenbaum benefited enormously from the professional guidance graciously given by Professor Sharon Levin, the department chair, and the example set by then-Chancellor Blanche Touhill. Among other things, Feigenbaum learned from them the art of writing successful grant applications, which brought UMSL almost $1 million in competitive grants from the National Science Foundation.
Feigenbaum still vividly remembers the indelible mark Economics Professor Anne Carter’s tutelage left on her as an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, the same sort of mentor-mentee relationship her future husband, Dr. Jay S. Pepose, shared with Professor John Lisman during his time at Brandeis.
As first-generation college students, Feigenbaum and Pepose were especially grateful to acquire such compassionate guides through the college experience. As much as their parents tried to ease the transition to life away from home, they couldn’t adequately convey a sense of the requirements and challenges inherent in completing a college degree, as they hadn’t experienced it.
“First-generation students need mentorship the most when it comes to collegiate success,” Feigenbaum said. “This ongoing oversight helps them negotiate the college environment and reinforces that a college education is an investment in themselves. College is about growing specific academic skills, but more importantly, it imparts essential social and workplace skills. A mentor helps do that.”
Feigenbaum made it her mission to mentor as many students as she could during her 30 years teaching at UMSL. Now, she and Pepose are funding a demonstration project at UMSL to help connect first-generation UMSL students with dedicated mentors.
For the next four years, the Proud to Be First Scholars Program, launching this fall, will select four first-time, full-time, first-generation UMSL freshmen and pair them with faculty mentors who were first-generation college students themselves. The program has been created to honor Feigenbaum and Touhill and in memory of Levin, all of whom were first-generation college students.
Proud to Be First Scholars will receive a small yearly stipend as well as extra funding for a study abroad experience or domestic internship in their junior years and an opportunity to participate in the Executive Fellows Mentoring Project through the College of Business Administration during their senior years. Their faculty mentors will receive funds for professional development with the expectation that they will work out a contract for frequent meetings, cultural excursions and networking events with their mentees.
College of Business Administration Dean Charlie Hoffman will serve as the Board Oversight Chair for the program. Hoffman was a first-generation student at UMSL after serving in the U.S. Air Force, and he appreciates the impact mentors such as Associate Professor of Management Emeritus Chuck Kuehl had on him.
“I had four years in the Air Force to prepare myself for college and establish firm career goals,” Hoffman said. “Entering UMSL with that experience and two small children, I was able to progress quickly to my BS and MBA due to the welcoming, nurturing environment, unusual in those days for Vietnam vets, that accommodated the special needs of my family. I’ll never forget the encouraging influence of Dr. Kuehl. He inspired my long career in business and helped me succeed in multiple CEO roles before I returned to be dean of the college.”
Ultimately, the goal of the project is to secure sufficient funding so that each and every first-generation UMSL student will have a mentor of their own.
“It’s experiential. It’s about worldly experiences,” Feigenbaum said. “You go to Washington for an intercession internship; that’s a whole new world. The point is to experience these opportunities so as to open doors for these students. We want mentors who are excited to serve in loco parentis and are committed to the students throughout their college years. Ideally, these mentors will be outside of the student’s area of academic interest to supplement the formal advisory system currently in place.”
Jon McGinnis, professor and chair of the UMSL philosophy department and future program mentor, experienced firsthand the importance a little bit of guidance can make in the life of a first-generation college student.
Growing up, the plan was for McGinnis to follow in his father’s footsteps and take over the family construction business. He didn’t take any ACT or SAT preparation courses. He had only one writing class in high school. He was hesitant to let his GPA get too high because he knew that the work-study program he was part of, through which he could chip in at the family business, favored less-than-stellar students for inclusion.
After high school, he decided to pursue an associate degree in business at a community college to learn the economic basis on the pricing of bids to debate his father.
“After my first semester, I learned two things: my dad was absolutely wrong about cash flow, and I really didn’t want to continue in business,” McGinnis said.
He had found a love for philosophy and history, one that carried him through bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of North Texas, another master’s and a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and into a life of academia.
Coming from a small town and having no clue what to expect in a university setting, McGinnis visited the writing center biweekly and learned a new word each day through the help of notecards. He also made a point to stretch himself outside of his comfort zone, seeking campus life activities that broadened his horizons and friends who didn’t share his upbringing and life experiences.
“You don’t take things for granted as a first-generation student,” McGinnis said. “My default was that I was not as smart as those around me. I had to work that much harder to keep up.”
He also remembers his mentors from his time at North Texas, professors such as Joe Barnhart and Harland Hagler, who always made time to discuss whatever was on McGinnis’ mind.
They’re why, on each of McGinnis’ course syllabi, he makes a point to let his students know that his office door is always open for a chat or a cup of coffee.
“Find that mentor, and then also create these friendships outside the classroom, where the ideas of the classroom continue on into those discussions,” McGinnis said. “The word education literally comes from ‘educe,’ to bring out. A proper education brings out what’s best in you.”
Feigenbaum is hoping that the Proud to Be First Scholars Program can help a new crop of first-generation students change the trajectories of their lives.
Addressing first-generation students during her commencement speech last May, Feigenbaum said, “You have all survived unique stresses, uncertainties and setbacks to achieve your degrees. In this way you have changed not only your own destiny but also that of your siblings, nieces, nephews and your family’s future generations. By your perseverance, you have truly opened the door to the American dream for generations to come.”
Students interested in applying for the Proud to Be First Scholars Program can do so through the general scholarship application on the Office of Student Financial Aid webpage. Faculty interested in being mentors for the program can contact Associate Provost for Student Success Beth Eckelkamp at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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