FirstGEN: Making College More Accessible

Krista Connor

A Delaware-based Teach for America network helps low-income high school students deal with an intimidating process

On average, only one out of every 100 low-income students in Wilmington graduates from high school and attends or finishes college. That’s a sad statistic from Teach for America, a national organization made up of recent college graduates teaching in under-resourced schools.

TFA is trying to eliminate such numbers, and with programs like its Delaware-based network FirstGEN, the goal is increasingly within reach. FirstGEN is a mentoring program that, unlike TFA’s typical post-college leadership requirements, allows students who are still in college to mentor. These local first-generation college students—the first in a family, usually low-income, to receive higher education—meet with and assist low-income high school students with their college prep process. This includes help with scholarships, paperwork, networking, resume-building, writing and conflict resolution skills. When the high school mentees graduate and start college, they too have the option of becoming mentors.

Ideas for the network began almost two years ago, when area TFA alumna Ashley Sorenson worked with Catherine Lindroth, Delaware’s TFA manager for strategy and community partnership, to build a five-week college access program, in which college students volunteered in afterschool sessions.

“At the end of the program, students were just totally taken aback,” says Lindroth. “On the last day, students reflected on the program and began standing up saying, ‘I’m so grateful for this.’ We realized it was not just mentors who drastically helped the students, but mentors within the same age range”—like those in FirstGEN.

The two women sat down with members of the Delaware Department of Education and shared the students’ reactions. Impressed with the findings, the DOE funded a “Getting to Zero Campaign grant”—grants to schools working to improve the quality of college support to low-income youth. It would help bring in mentors (who receive an $800 stipend each semester).

Two hundred students are expected to be mentored this semester through December. (Photo courtesy of Teach For America)

Two hundred students are expected to be mentored this semester through December. (Photo courtesy of Teach For America)

Howard, Delcastle, William Penn, Seaford, Dover and Moyer high schools were among the first to receive these grants, and more schools are expected to join within the next few years.

FirstGEN successfully launched last year with 90 mentors and more than 200 mentees. One hundred percent of the high school seniors involved in the program applied to college or registered with the military.

“Each mentor had this personal story that’s so deeply connected to the kids we work with, and they just wanted to give back,” says Lindroth. “They’re not just doing this for their resume, but are saying ‘I want to get out there and support kids who grew up like me.’”
Teach for America expects to recruit 25 percent of its Delaware corps members through FirstGEN by 2020. This semester, mentors are guiding another 200 students one-on-one toward their college goals, getting together three to 10 hours a week from October to December.

“I think it has the potential to be an incredibly supportive institution for first-generation college and high school students,” says Lindroth. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Mentors take so much ownership over the program. They believe in it and they want it to continue. They love it, and it has taken a life of its own.”

UD sophomore Megan Aidoo mentored eight hours each week at Moyer Academy in Wilmington last year.

“I was inspired to join because I wanted to be a resource for the students,” says Aidoo. “I know the decision-making on what you want to do after high school can be intimidating, so I wanted to provide an ease to the stress and talk about some of the things I did, so I could give insight on what did or didn’t work.”

UD student Eugene Bestman says he first heard about FirstGEN through UD. He dedicated four hours per week last year to mentoring through FirstGEN.

“I felt like as a high school senior, I didn’t have that guide there to prepare me for college, so I thought it will be a great opportunity to pass on the info that I’ve learned,” Bestman says.

Relationships between mentors and mentees typically continue informally after the semester or semesters end, says Lindroth. She hopes that mentees will continue engaging by becoming mentors themselves once they graduate from high school, thus working alongside former mentors.

“My whole perspective has changed from doing this program,” says Aidoo. “I have met students from all sorts of backgrounds and life stories. College for them was not attainable until FirstGEN came to be.”

For more information and mentor applications for FirstGEN, go to teachforamerica.org.

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