Two years ago, I wrote an opinion article in honor of First-Generation College Student Celebration Week. I hoped that my words would provide comfort for other first-gen students navigating the strange and unfamiliar institution a university can be. At the time, there was little else I could offer.
Around the same time, I wrote another piece urging UM’s administration to recommit to serving Mississippi’s students — the majority of which are poor and Black. As a flagship institution, serving the state’s people is, after all, the mission. Perhaps, I thought, this request might move the needle, even slightly.
One year later, we hosted a university-wide First-Generation Student Celebration Week — complete with a student panel, breakfast in the Grove and a keynote speaker. The First-Generation Student Network was finally taking off, and the community that I so desperately used to long for was beginning to form.
Efforts to support first-gen students at the institutional level started to gain traction soon after. In the months following the event, Provost Noel Wilkin appointed a first-generation student task force, led by Lauren Jones of the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement and Ashleen Williams of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Over 20 representatives from across campus, including students, took on the charge of crafting recommendations for cross-campus collaboration as it relates to first-gen student recruitment, retention, student success and so on.
Now, as we enter this year’s First-Generation Student Celebration Week, the week is even larger and more exciting than the year before, hosting speakers such as Chancellor Glenn Boyce and Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Eduardo Preito. The First-Generation Student Network has grown to over 80 members from all across campus, and there are no signs of slowing. Although I graduated in May, it brings me great joy to see that a once miniscule community of first-generation students is stronger than ever.
Meaningful change takes time, coordination and resilience. I am incredibly proud to see the progress for first-generation students that has taken place on this campus in such a short time. No school is perfect, and there are gains still to be made. Yet, if students continue to drive the conversations that affect them and administration continues to act on those conversations, I am confident that UM can continue to make this university a kinder, more welcoming and fulfilling place for so many underserved Mississippi students.
Ainsley Ash is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi and the founder of the First-Generation College Student Network at the University of Mississippi.