UMSL celebrating first-generation students

by | Nov 8, 2021

The Opportunity Scholars Program and the Proud to Be First Scholars Program are two UMSL initiatives aimed at supporting first-generation students.
Opportunity Scholars students Jalen Rhodes, Nora Stith, Katie Basler, Lorne St. Christopher II and Bana Sultan

UMSL is celebrating first-generation students, who face unique challenges navigating the college environment without family members who’ve been through it to answer their questions and lend support. The Opportunity Scholars Program – of which (from left) Jalen Rhodes, Nora Stith, Katie Basler, Lorne St. Christopher II and Bana Sultan are part – is one UMSL initiative directed at supporting first-generation students. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The University of Missouri–St. Louis is spending this week honoring first-generation college students, who make up such a significant part of the university community.

Those students bring a thirst for learning that is infectious as they pursue their educational goals. But they can also face challenges navigating the college environment, including financial aid and advising, without family members who have been through it readily available to lend support.

Many faculty and staff members on the UMSL campus, including Chancellor Kristin Sobolik and Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Steven Berberich, feel a kinship with first-generation students, having lived those experiences in their own educational journeys – Sobolik’s starting at the University of Iowa.

“I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of ocean, floundering around, trying to figure out where my classes were, how advising worked, how to study and where to set up tutoring appointments that were free to Pell Grant students such as myself,” Sobolik said in video message to students. “Since my family didn’t have a lot of money to help, I also had two jobs. I got up at 5:30 in the morning to work in the dish room of the residence hall cafeteria, and after school, I worked in the X-ray library of the university hospital, back in the day when they actually had X-ray films to file and keep track of.”

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in bachelor’s degree in biology and then went on to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology at Texas A&M University.

Berberich earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and a PhD in biomedical sciences at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and later spent 25 years as a faculty member there in biochemistry and molecular biology.

“While neither of my parents attended college, they both stressed the importance of a college degree to their three children,” Berberich said. “My brother, sister and I are thankful for their support as we each navigated our way through college. For me, it required support from a high school biology teacher, who helped me prepare for a career in science. A country club manager allowed me to work hours around my classes, and a college science professor who let me study and work in his laboratory. My success in college was dependent on the mentoring and support I received both inside and outside the university.”

UMSL is committed to creating a supportive campus environment where first-generation students can find the encouragement and support they need as they look to advance their futures by earning a college degree.

One initiative dedicated to supporting first-generation students is the Proud to Be First Scholars Program, which launched in the fall of 2019 and has connected first-time, full-time, first-generation UMSL freshmen with faculty mentors who were first-generation college students themselves. The program was conceived and funded by Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor Emerita Susan Feigenbaum in the Department of Economics.

Sobolik’s video message was directed toward students in that program.

The Office of Academic Affairs is using this week to celebrate not only the students who are part of the Proud to Be First Scholars program but all first-generation students at UMSL. Representatives from the Office of Academic Affairs, including Alicia Hutchings, the Vice Provost Fellow for Student Success, will set up tables from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in the second floor rotunda of the Millennium Student Center. They will have a prize basket and First Gen Photo Frame and will also be passing out First Gen buttons.


Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik