Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management recently announced the launch of the Whitman First Program, an initiative to support first-generation college students by helping them adapt more easily to the many facets of a business school environment.
“This academic year, we have 100 first-generation undergraduates, including true first-year students and transfers. This reflects about 19% of our fall 2023 incoming class,” says Whitman Interim Dean Alex McKelvie, noting that is an increase from 12% in fall 2022. “First-generation status – where neither parent attended a university - come from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. And, it is a testament to one of Whitman’s core values — inclusion — by ensuring that those who are the first in their families to navigate the college experience have our support to do so successfully.”
From the first interaction, the goal of the Whitman First Program is to make students feel that they belong here, according to Lindsay Quilty, assistant dean of undergraduate programs and creator of this program. While attendance is not mandatory, more than a third of the first-generation students enrolled at the Whitman School this year signed on to participate.
According to Quilty, college students who have at least one mentor statistically have a greater chance of moving from their first year to their sophomore year and ultimately have a higher graduation rate. Consequently, one of the key components of the Whitman First Program is pairing students with faculty and staff mentors, most of whom were first-generation college students themselves.
Assistant Professor of Accounting Sebastian Tideman-Frappart was a first-generation college student when he enrolled at the University of Bremen in his native Germany. “At the time, I didn’t know how to ask for help. I questioned what major to choose and even if I had what it took to study there,” he explains. “Everything was quite overwhelming, and it would have saved me a lot of struggles and stress if I had had someone to reach out to for help. So, when I heard about the opportunity to mentor a first-generation college student here at the Whitman School, I was very enthusiastic to help. I’ve already connected with my mentee, and I hope to be a resource to him and develop an open door relationship where I can assure him it’s normal to face some struggles and OK to ask plenty of questions.”
Doris Dai ’27 (WSM/NEW) is a Whitman student who joined the program. “I almost wasn’t going to sign up for the Whitman First Program, but I’m glad I did, and I’m very happy to have Dawn McWilliams, director of marketing and communications — who also was a first-generation college student — as my mentor,” Dai says. “Being that I’m from all the way across the country, having a mentor feels like a safety net I can fall back on if I ever need help navigating anything to appears to be a challenge.”
In addition to providing mentors, the Whitman First Program will also hold formal sessions throughout the academic years to cover “just in time topics” suggested by Whitman faculty and staff. These address ideas like financial awareness, an introduction to the various clubs and organizations that can help students build upon their business experience, and information on how and why to pursue an internship or consider study abroad, as well as tasks that teach students the necessary technology used in Whitman classes, familiarize them with business lingo and help to match their skills and interests when choosing a major.
“The University already does a great deal to support first-generation students, so we’re not trying to duplicate those efforts. But Whitman is committed to student success and being able to tailor our program, specifically help our first year students thrive in the business school environment, is important for the Whitman School,” explains Quilty. We know that first-generation college students tend to be naturally resourceful, determined and creative — which are often some of the best qualities found in great business leaders — and we hope to harness that energy and dedication.”
“Being accepted into the Whitman School is a huge milestone in the first place, as we have a very competitive acceptance rate. Our goal, of course, is ensuring our students earn their degrees,” she adds. “Our Whitman First Program not only helps first-generation students realize it’s OK to ask for support over their four years here but is also an intentional way of giving them the skills, confidence and resources they need to succeed both now and well into their business careers.”