First-gen...the tradition begins

O'Neal at Howdy Week Workshop

Written by: Heather Gillin (cehdcomm@tamu.edu)
Post date: September 18, 2018

Kelley O’Neal, director of the Marilyn Kent Byrne Student Success Center, went to college as a first-generation student. Inspired by this experience, he grew passionate about creating a program that could help students in the college.

He recalled how eye-opening the experience was for him.

"When college was discussed at home, my Mom would say, 'I want you to go to college'," O'Neal said. "Unfortunately, there was no further information that she could add."

Through the new First-Gen Network, he hopes to take away the shock factor for first-generation students in the college. His goal is to help them feel supported throughout their time at Texas A&M.

“I wanted to build something for first-generation students so they know they are not alone, so they can find each other,” O’Neal said.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that first-generation college students are 44 percent less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree in comparison to students whose parents either completed or attended some college.

O’Neal hopes to make that statistic disappear. Hired in 2016, he has worked with students every day offering support and academic coaching. He noticed that existing first-generation learning communities were not reaching all first-generation students.

He launched the First-Gen Network in August 2018 during Texas A&M's Howdy Week for incoming freshman and transfer students.

Howdy Week Workshops

The First-Gen Network held three workshops during Howdy Week for incoming first-generation students. The first workshop welcomed students and presented issues they may face. O'Neal offered solutions on how to navigate them to be successful academically.

The second workshop utilized first-generation upperclassmen as mentors and encouragers for the freshman. They talked to the new students about their experiences at Texas A&M and how they overcame difficulties. Then, O’Neal held a question and answer session where freshman posed specific questions to the upperclassmen.

For the third workshop, a panel of first-generation faculty and staff members shared their experiences and commitment to the new students. O’Neal said he wants the students to know that they have a network of support at every step of their college career.

The Future of First Gen

O’Neal, along with members of the First-Gen committee, aims to attract more faculty and staff, especially those who were also first-generation students. He hopes that other colleges at Texas A&M will see what the college is doing and start their own First-Gen Networks.

“As we continue to build this program for first-generation students, as more and more people see how we are helping students to be successful, they are going to want to be involved,” O’Neal said.