First-Generation Students: A Guide for Supporting Academic Trailblazers and Their Families

3 Strategies for Supporting First-Gen Students 

Research shows that first-gen students struggle to gain a sense of belonging. Low-income, first-generation students face additional barriers.  

ACUE partners with schools who are excelling at supporting first-generation learners and who understand the critical role faculty play in building relationships that engage first-gen learners and keep them engaged. In this post we’ll define key terms, share links to related resources, and provide three practical strategies for how faculty, staff, and higher ed leaders can support first-gen learners and increase engagement and retention. 

Strategies at a glance: 

  • Demystify campus language.  
  • Cultivate a sense of belonging in first-generation families.  
  • Reduce the impact of imposter phenomenon.  

First-Generation Students are students whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree. This group is comprised of students who are first in their immediate and extended families to attend college, as well as first-generation, low-income students.  

  • 30% of first-generation learners drop out of college after 3 years.
  • Only 11% of students who identify as both first-generation and low-income graduate with a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of matriculation.

1. Demystify campus language

“College has a whole language of its own,” says Alvin L. Johnson, director of academic advising services at Prairie View A&T University. “It took me a while, as a student, to understand it all. Like, what is a registrar? What is a bursar?” 

Insight: Create glossaries to help first-generation students navigate through the terminology. Provide an accessible online or hard copy to provide during open house or orientation events. 

Resource: Check out a Higher Ed Glossary from the U.S. News & World Report with terms and definitions commonly used by colleges and universities to support students and their families. 

Insight: Avoid acronyms, which are another example of terminology that can be confusing to newcomers, especially first-gen students. “We think very carefully anytime we’re creating a flier, making an announcement, sending an email, talking directly to students or in a presentation,” says Evelyn R. Espinoza, of California State University, Los Angeles

24% of surveyed first-generation students said they were aware of a center on campus dedicated to first-gen students. 

2. Cultivate a sense of belonging in first-generation families

Students who are first in their families to attend college contend with unique challenges. They are more likely to come from poor-performing high schools, low-income backgrounds, and households where English isn’t spoken. And without the benefit of parents’ college-going experience, they have fewer tools to navigate college bureaucracies and day-to-day campus life.  

Insight: Cultivating a sense of belonging in first-generation families is one critical strategy. At the California State University, Los Angeles created a Parent Academy for parents of first-time college students that provides workshops at orientation and throughout the year for parents covering topics on transitioning to college life, student mental health, and financial aid. Parents who attend all three sessions are presented with a Certificate of Completion during the final program and become Parent Academy Alumni.  

3. Reduce the potential impact of imposter phenomenon

“It’s important that students recognize that imposter phenomenon is ‘normal’ to feel,” says Nicole Blalock, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at California State University, Northridge. Discussing these feelings can help students reframe their thoughts and feelings from “This means I don’t belong” to “Most of us have experienced this.” 

Insight: Share your story to normalize and reduce the potential impact of imposter phenomenon. At The University of Southern Mississippi, where about 31% of students are first-generation, faculty and staff celebrate National First-Gen Celebration Day as part of a larger first-gen community. Through a partnership between USM’s Center for Faculty Development and Office of New Student and Retention Programs, faculty and staff have worked to become more public and outspoken about being the first in their families to attend college. 


The “Fundamentally Transformative” Power of Higher Education: A Conversation Between Paul LeBlanc and Ted Mitchell

Podcast Episode: The “Fundamentally Transformative” Power of Higher Education

Commencement ceremonies
at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) are among the best parts of Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc’s job. 

As SNHU president, these events are where LeBlanc hears about the incredible diversity of SNHU’s graduates. They are people who have been formerly incarcerated, veterans, refugees, and people with disabilities; graduates of all ages, races, and ethnicities. Their stories are a testament to the “fundamentally transformative” power of higher education, a topic LeBlanc discusses in depth in a new podcast with Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council of Education (ACE). Listen to the full conversation and review key conversation takeaways below. 


Key Conversation Insights and Takeaways


The SNHU Advantage: Supporting Students Through Faculty Development

Serving more than 150,000 learners, SNHU offers approximately 200 accredited undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs available online and on its 300-acre campus in Manchester, New Hampshire. As one of the most innovative, fastest-growing, and impactful institutions of higher education in the country, LeBlanc says a central part of SNHU’s success has been its commitment of faculty to students and their surrounding communities.  

A “major gap,” he laments, is ensuring faculty receive the support, training, and professional development they need to set today’s learners up for success. 

“Faculty are being asked to do so much,” LeBlanc says. “Mental health challenges, rapidly changing technology, and the need to effectively serve a wide range of learners are things that all institutions must grapple with, but faculty can often be sidelined from that work.”


SNHU’s Partnership With ACUE 

One of the most consistent pieces of feedback that SNHU hears from its faculty is a desire for more structured opportunities to engage in high quality professional development. In this episode, President LeBlanc says that faculty who have earned ACUE’s nationally recognized teaching credentials have reported transformative impact. 

“The beauty of [ACUE] is that the thing I learned today I get to put to work tomorrow. Like, it’s immediate. And honestly, I’ve never heard faculty gush about a professional development experience the way they talk about this,” says LeBlanc.

Since SNHU’s partnership with ACUE launched in December 2022, a total of 17 cohorts have completed or started ACUE’s credential program. After starting with two cohorts, SNHU has quickly expanded the opportunity in response to faculty demand and popularity.  

LeBlanc says the experience has earned high praise from all types of faculty, including SNHU’s most seasoned educators.  

One example is Bryan Belanger, who has been teaching online courses for nearly 10 years. “It sometimes feels like I’ve already tried it all,” he shares on LinkedIn. “This was a great way to stretch my thinking, revisit how I approach my courses each term and learn new ways to ensure student success!”


The Connection Between Belonging & Higher Retention

From his vantage point as president of ACE, which has endorsed ACUE’s nationally recognized teaching credentials, Ted Mitchell shares how ACUE partner institutions foster belonging on their campuses and online. It starts, he says, with “building a community of learners among faculty.”  

Mitchell and LeBlanc say that they are seeing measurable impact for faculty and students, as well as across campus.  

“When faculty learn and implement these evidence-based practices, students stay in school longer and equity gaps close,” says Mitchell. “An ACUE-certified faculty member essentially retains two additional students per year. If you think about that from a student’s point of view, those are two people whose pathways will continue to expand as a result of their higher ed experience.”


To learn more about how to bring ACUE programs to your course or campus, please visit or contact our partnerships team at [email protected].