Experiential learning opportunities can be a leg up for students to gain valuable résumé experience, expand their social and professional networks, and explore future career roles. However, cost can be a high barrier for entry for students from low-income backgrounds.
Centre College in Kentucky received an anonymous $10 million gift in April 2022 to expand funding opportunities for first-generation students to enrich their learning opportunities during their time at the college. College leaders guide students to use funds to participate in spaces that can give them a hand up and catapult them into success.
Commitment to first-gen: All first-generation students are guaranteed access to enrichment funding, and many belong to a larger scholarship program at Centre, providing wraparound support.
Centre College launched the Grissom Scholars program in 2015 to address inequalities for first-generation students at the college. The program covers tuition for 10 students annually. Grissom scholars have a special orientation prior to their first term and receive guidance from peer and staff mentors.
“With Grissom, we became an institution that is very welcoming and understanding of the first-generation assets,” says Sarah Scott, associate dean and director of the Grissom Scholars program.
In 2022, Centre joined the Kessler Scholars Collaborative and will host its first scholars this fall. The Kessler Scholars program offers similar financial support as well as cohort-building events, one-on-one advising and networking with the Collaborative community for around 20 students.
All other first-gen scholars will be part of the Thrive program, also launching this fall.
The college has seen its first-gen enrollment rate grow as a result of the programs, with its first-generation population increasing from 9 percent of all students in 2015 to 21 percent today.
How it works: Centre College guarantees all first-generation students will have access to at least $5,000 in enrichment funding. Kessler scholars receive an additional $600 for laptop or textbook costs.
“It’s not just enough to enroll first-generation students … if they’re not able to take advantage of the rich opportunities around them,” Scott says.
The first-generation office distributes funds to students and helps guide students on what is covered by their respective programs, with three staff members advising and handling funds for each program.
In general, students can apply their funding to conference attendance, professional clothing, graduate school preparation support, study abroad costs and funding underpaid or unpaid internship experiences, among other expenses. Students may use funds for laptops, commuting costs and textbooks depending on their program’s qualifications.
Thrive and Grissom scholars have the broadest interpretation of scholarship funding use, while Kessler criteria are narrower.
The enrichment fund is endowed, so there’s no limit to the number of scholars who will get funding or time frame in which they can use their funding, Scott says.
Budgeting for success: Grissom scholars have used funding for a variety of items including travel for out-of-state residents, participating in study abroad or unpaid internship experiences, visiting graduate schools, or attending conferences, Scott says.
“It’s transformative,” Scott says. “It just gives a little bit more freedom for them to be students and to say yes to different opportunities.”
As a process, the office tries to provide funding up front rather than reimbursing students, because many don’t have the money on hand to spend, which can make the work labor-intensive for staff. The first-generation office staff provides one-on-one advising for students to make sure their money can stretch as far as possible.
Centre College also provides personal finance workshops geared toward first-generation students to help them learn the basics about financial literacy and get them comfortable talking about money.
A challenge has been counseling students to spend their money in ways that are ambitious or pushing them out of their comfort zones. Many students come in feeling impostor syndrome, so staff serve as cheerleaders, reminding them they belong and have the same right to high-impact experiences as their more resourced peers.
Often, Scott says, one student taking advantage of enrichment funding for an adventurous experience like an internship or study abroad creates a cycle of encouragement for their peers to do the same.
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This article has been updated to correct institutional fees covered by the Grissom Scholars program.