Karl Vogl

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Winthrop University has a large population of first-generation college students enrolled at the school, who often face struggles that many other students don’t, because they come from families that don’t have a lot of experience with higher education.

“Here on campus, we define first-generation as (having) no one in your family, either parent or guardian, who has achieved a four-year degree,” said Shelia Burkhalter, Winthrop’s vice president for student affairs.

While first-generation students are often considered trailblazers among their families, they often need help adjusting to college life.

Mckenzy Brooks, a junior first-generation student majoring in early childhood education, said her struggles began before she even set foot on campus.

“My application process happened when representatives from Winthrop University came to my high school and I filled out the free application that they had when they came and saw us. That was actually the only application for college that I found out about, because I don’t have many resources other than the representatives that came,” Brooks said.

“Throughout all my life I have had role models to look up to pertaining to almost every aspect of my life, except for college, so I was coming in essentially blind.”

Nationally, about 33 percent of college students are the first in their family to attend college, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Burkhalter says the student population at Winthrop mirrors the national average, with roughly one-third of students identifying as first-generation.

As a result, Winthrop provides a number of resources for first-generation students, including the Center for First-generation Student Success and TRiO Achievers Program.

“First and foremost, we have the TRiO format that is over on the academic side of the house and they will shepherd students in through, sort of a bridging kind of experience, early in the fall and then as they bring them on, they expose them to a lot of the resources that we have on campus and then they too will provide them with an immersive mentoring and coaching,” said Burkhalter.

There is also the McNair Scholars program that gets first-generation students involved with undergraduate research and the first-generation celebration week where students are able to network and celebrate with alumni and faculty, who were also first-generation students.

“I wish I would have known about all the programs that especially Winthrop has to offer like Close Scholars and TRiO before I got here in the fall,” said Kamron Hill, a junior environmental studies major and first-generation student.

Hill said that once he got to Winthrop he learned about all of the resources that were available to first-generation students, but it was too late to utilize some of those resources.

Thus, the first-generation population is one that often needs extra support and Winthrop continues its work to engage with and retain first-generation students and help them feel supported.

In 2020, the Suder Foundation designated Winthrop as one of its First-gen Forward Institutions.

“We look forward to advancing the success of first-generation students,” said Burkhalter. “The student success literature confirms that efforts to advance first-generation students will ultimately benefit all students on campus.”