From Admission to Graduation: Ensuring First-Generation Students Succeed on Campus
Barry Telford
Barry Telford
CEO, Universities West, Sodexo North America President, Sodexo Canada

For many, a university or college education is simply a pathway to an exciting career. But in the case of first-generation students, it represents so much more: hope, progress and most of all, courage.

Approximately one-third of college students in the United States are first-generation students, according to the Council of Independent Colleges and statistics show that these students are less-likely to graduate then students whose parents attended college. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, that means 6 million–plus young people each year need more than a welcome mat and a course catalog to make them feel comfortable on campus.  This got me thinking – what can academic institutions, and us, as university partners, do to help?

One of the experts we spoke with in compiling our 2018 Sodexo University Trends Report, Amy Baldwin, agrees. Author of “The First-Generation College Experience,” Baldwin says, “When you graduate a first-generation student, you change not only that student’s life; you change their generation, their family’s life.”

This got me thinking – what can academic institutions, and us, as university partners, do to help?

Foster a comfortable environment

Simple measures can significantly impact the on-campus experience for apprehensive first-generation students. For example, I recommend tailoring campus dining programs to include food representative of the comforts of home for a wide variety of backgrounds. Other approaches include pairing first-generation students in student housing or in living-learning communities in order to minimize feelings of isolation.

Avoid labels

For some students, the “first-generation” label is a badge of honor that encourages students to unite as they overcome similar struggles. For others, it’s a stigmatizing designation that carries with it negative connotations. For this reason, it is important that academic institutions recognize when the “first-generation” label is appropriate.

Mentor wisely

Baldwin points to the University of Arkansas as a perfect example of an academic institution that’s taking steps to welcome first-generation students, which make up about 20 percent of its undergraduate population. Initiatives include a mentoring program where first-generation freshman and sophomore students are matched with caring faculty who, through two meetings a semester, guide students on how to navigate the university, set a career path, balance family/school/work life and learn how to give back to the community.

Today’s first-generation students offer a wide array of strengths to the university experience—many are highly motivated, extremely resourceful, appreciative when they receive assistance and resilient in the face of adversity. As a result, they provide academic institutions with a unique opportunity to recruit and retain a growing and vital demographic that promises to spur economic growth with their specialized skills and strong character.

By implementing these strategies, academic institutions not only provide first-generation students with an opportunity to transform their lives but help build a culturally rich and diversified student body. After all, says Baldwin: “Anything you do for first-generation students benefits all students.”

To learn more about the unique challenges of serving a growing population of first-generation students and other trends facing universities today, read our 2018 Sodexo University Trends Report.


Barry Telford is theCEO of Universities West for Sodexo North America. A strong advocate for the new performance frontier: Quality of Life, Mr. Telford believes that great performance is driven by strong, inclusive leadership based on family and community-centered values and a commitment to serve others. Mr. Telford serves on the Board of theSodexo Stop Hunger FoundationToronto’s Second Harvest and the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business (CCAB).

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