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Centre College’s Grissom Scholars Program for first-generation college students featured in U.S. News

By Michael Strysick
Centre College

Now in its fourth year, the Grissom Scholars Program at Centre College has earned national attention as an exemplary opportunity for talented first-generation college students and was recently included in a U.S. News & World Report story on the topic.

Created in 2014, the program provides a four-year full-tuition-plus scholarship, along with $5,000 in educational enrichment funds to use for opportunities such as study abroad, internships and independent research.

Ten Grissom Scholars have been selected for each entering class beginning in fall 2015, and with a 100 percent retention rate, 40 students are now enrolled with the 2018 entering class.

In her story titled “A Career Road Map for First-Generation Professionals,” U.S. News reporter Rebecca Koenig set out to understand the landscape for those first in their family to attend college who intend to pursue a white-collar career.

Grissom Scholars gathered for a recent event (Centre College photo)

Specifically, she wondered about how these students find role models and a support system, and she pointed to Centre College as meeting this challenge.

Koenig interviewed Sarah Scott, director of the Grissom Scholars Program, to learn about the ways in which Centre College is such a welcoming place for first-generation students.

“The first-generation population is visible on campus, “Koenig noted, “making up 19 percent of the school’s 1,450 undergraduates.” She also pointed out that “they’re academically successful: 85 percent earn degrees in four years.”

The dilemma, however, is that “those who grew up without family members working in white-collar jobs may have difficulty picturing their own future professional careers.”

One key support mechanism Koenig cited is identifying “empathetic mentors.” Scott explained that nearly 100 faculty and staff at Centre are first-generation students themselves.

To be able to show their support, Scott said, “first-generation students … designed a logo to post near the office doors of faculty and staff members who also were the first in their families to graduate from college.”

As a result, a huge support system is put in place, and this network can address a myriad of concerns.

“Pursuing professions very different from those of their parents and guardians can leave first-generation students and graduates feeling isolated,” Koenig writes. This occurs, Scott says, because “Their families may be able to provide little more than general enthusiasm when it comes to career planning.”

Centre’s mentor network steps in to fill the void.

In addition, “There’s pressure to be in certain majors,” Scott said, because first-generation students might feel compelled to become a doctor or lawyer, careers where they assume “you’re going to make more and be more successful.”

Rather, Centre has been focused on helping its first-generation students broaden their horizons and gain relevant experience that helps determine what career path is right for them.

Emmely Ovalle is a case in point.

A Grissom Scholar from Tampa, she used part of her enrichment funds to reconnect with her mother’s heritage by traveling to Cuba and has also conducted summer research in behavioral neuroscience with a Centre professor.

Interested in a career in physical therapy, Ovalle also worked closely with the College’s Center for Career & Professional Development, which helped arrange an internship in Danville, where Centre is located. This empowered her to create a second internship in her hometown of Tampa.

Set to graduate in May 2019 as part of the first cohort of Grissom Scholars, Ovalle has already been accepted into a graduate program in her native Florida.

Scott is quick to point out that Ovalle is actually more the norm for first-generation students at Centre College than the exception.

“Centre is honored to be a home away from home for so many bright and determined first-generation students. With widespread support from student clubs like CentreFirsts and the dedication of faculty and staff, it’s no wonder that students are succeeding here,” Scott said.

“We believe in the power of sharing best practice and are grateful to learn from other institutions,” she added, “as well as share our successful initiatives so that first-generation students can thrive on every campus in the nation.”

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