Elon faculty, staff panel discuss support and access for first-generation college students

Tuesday, Nov. 8 is National First Generation College Celebration and a panel of faculty and staff spoke about their own experiences as first-generation college graduates and the resources available for current first-generation students at Elon.

Elon University faculty, staff and students gathered to recognize the National First-Generation College Celebration with a panel discussion about the needs of first-gen students on Elon’s campus and how the university can better meet those needs.

“The goal of this is to provide support, make connections and see what challenges you have as first-generation students and trying to figure out how our support systems can help you,” said Michael Williams, moderator of the discussion and director of the Moseley Center.

Students listen to speakers at a First-Generation forum held November 7, 2022, at LaRose Commons.

The panelists discussed how their experiences as first-generation college graduates have helped them be better advocates for the first-generation students at Elon today.

“I understand coming to college and being lost,” said Travella Free, executive director of the Center for Access and Success, which oversees support for first-generation students. “But I had mentors who came into my life to share their experiences.”

Odyssey Program Director Marcus Elliott wasn’t the first in his family to go to college but was the first to attend a predominantly white institution. His parents, who attended historically black colleges and universities, were only able to guide but so far. Elliott said he felt alone in some instances, but was able to plug in with the right resources that helped steer him in the right direction.

“Professionally, that drove me into wanting to do the same for others, to be that person or resource for the folks that didn’t have that,” Elliott said. “I love what I do and love being able to help guide and put people in place to be successful. No matter … how you get there, we’re going to do it together.”

Portia Wade taught on every level before coming to Elon, where she has worked in the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education helping early childhood and elementary majors prepare for the North Carolina teaching licensure. In more than two decades of experience with the local public school system and Alamance Community College, Wade said one thing she’s remained passionate about is helping students navigate the education process.

The main piece of advice she gives to students looking to make a way for themselves in college is to step out of their comfort zones. “Take a risk. Realize that the resources and opportunities that are here at Elon are here for you,” Wade said. “We want to build those relationships, we want to be there for you … and we want you to be successful. One of the joys for me is commencement because I love seeing those students cross the finish line.”

Sarah Harmon, adjunct instructor in environmental studies, right, speaks about her experience as a first-generation student at a First-Generation forum held November 7, 2022, at LaRose Commons.

Jessica Merricks, assistant professor of biology, echoed these sentiments and urged students to start building their network of faculty and staff to lean on for support and use resources, such as the Center for Access and Success, as soon as possible.

As a reserved student who didn’t understand the intricacies of being a college student, Merricks was intimated by those in positions of power. But eventually, she curbed that fear and told those in the audience to suppress that fear as well.

“All of your faculty … are here to help you be successful,” Merricks said. “So, come to us with your questions, your problems, your goals, your aspirations so that we can really get to know you and that when you need us we can be there in the best way possible.”

Throughout the week, Elon will host a variety of events for first-generation students to connect with other first-generation people on campus. The next event will be the Community Celebration on Wednesday, Nov. 9 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on the Mooney/LaRose Student Commons shared lawn. Then on Friday, Nov. 11, students can enjoy s’mores on the Koury Patio.