In 2009, a Texas-based foundation chose the University of Kentucky for an extremely targeted pilot program: Take 20 incoming freshmen whose parents never had any college classes, and help the students through.
Mentor them academically and socially. Give them scholarships to ease the financial burden. Make sure the students from Kentucky meet and talk with professors and help with the unique challenges that face those who aren't familiar with the culture of college.
In fall 2010, the inaugural First Scholars group, financed with $800,000 from the Suder Foundation, arrived in Lexington.
By fall 2011, every one of those students was still enrolled. That 100 percent retention rate compared to 82 percent retention in general at UK, and 74 percent for first-generation students.
Matthew Deffendall, the first director of First Scholars, couldn't help thinking about ways to duplicate what worked to help the roughly 900 other first-generation freshmen at UK. He put together ideas and now oversees a new program, the First Generation Initiatives, to serve all first-generation students, including First Scholars.
The data from First Scholars "raised some eyebrows in the provost's office," Deffendall said. "So we just started asking, what can we do to help larger groups of students?"
The program shares a newly renovated suite of offices with two similar efforts. The Robinson Scholars program identifies students from coal counties in eighth grade and mentors them through high school and into college. The Appalachian and Minority Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Majors program, known as AMSTEMM, helps shepherd students through those difficult fields and into graduate school.
Students from these programs, including the second group of First Scholars, can mingle in the office lounge, watch TV, or talk with the program directors, including Martina Martin, who took over First Scholars from Deffendall.
"We're trying to build a support structure and a community, so they have a place they can feel at home," Deffendall said.
The offerings made the difference to Jennifer Doan, who was in the first class of First Scholars and now works in the office.
As the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who settled in Louisville but never attended college, Doan said her first month at UK was extremely difficult.
"I was very lonely," Doan said. "It's so big, and you really don't know anybody. When I had a problem, I didn't know who to go to. No one in my family told me anything about it because they didn't know. Matthew really helped me to realize I needed to take it slow, instead of rushing and being overwhelmed."
Doan said she and the other 19 First Scholars bonded, and now they are getting to know the students in other programs.
"I love it here, compared to my first month," said Doan, who plans to become a pediatrician.
Cherokee Willoughby of Mount Sterling has most appreciated the mentoring that he has received as a First Scholar. He was a top student at Montgomery County High School, and his parents, who didn't have degrees, always pushed him toward college. But he felt unprepared for the work at UK.
"I took a lot of AP (advanced placement) classes, but I didn't have to work very hard," Willoughby said. "Here it's been really challenging."
He also likes the camaraderie around the First Gen offices, 217 Funkhouser, also known as Two-One-Seven. "Matthew is a caring person and we get one-on-one time," Willoughby said.
Signs of a cultural shift
Last fall, First Generation Initiatives got a big start with the First Generation Living Learning Community inside the Blanding III residence hall.
Forty-eight students, including some from First Scholars, Robinson Scholars and AMSTEMM, live in one of the few residence halls in the country devoted to first-generation students. There is shared living space and room for several professors to hold office hours. Students learn the importance of interacting with their teachers.
"What has happened since 2009 has been a cultural change on campus about first-generation college success," Deffendall said. For instance, the Office for Institutional Research now tracks all first-generation students, and the UK application allows better identification of first-gen students.
In addition, Deffendall is trying to recruit more first-generation students to get involved with the Stories Project, a series of YouTube video interviews of UK faculty and staff who also were first-generation. That list includes former UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., and one of Deffendall's bosses, Associate Provost Mike Mullen, who heads the division of undergraduate education.
First-generation success "is really a focal point at the University of Kentucky," Mullen said. "Anything we can do to bolster that group has a positive impact on the bottom line. More importantly, do we then get those kids to think about what long-term success looks like?"
Mullen's division has worked with Deffendall to create more sections of UK 101, the school's introductory class, tailored especially for first-gen students.
Deffendall also has worked with Anthony Ogden, the director of UK's Education Abroad and himself a first-generation student who went to Berea College, to get more first-generation students overseas. Ogden found money to help first-generation students including Robinson Scholar Chandria Bennett from London, who just received a $1,000 award to go to Germany this summer.
Future of First Scholars
Financing is always an issue, especially with the Suder Foundation grants for new students ending after this year, and UK facing more state budget cuts.
Deffendall hopes that other first-generation alumni and friends will help with scholarships that will continue to finance First Scholars. Donations have helped continue First Scholars next year.
Sophomore Brittany Courtney said she hopes the programming can continue and expand.
"It was like a slap in the face," Courtney said of her freshman year at UK. "There was such a big culture shock with everything."
Courtney attended tiny Frankfort High School, where 60 students were in her class. She signed up for a computer programming class at UK, where the professor assumed that everyone had a solid background in the field. She didn't. A week after school started, she got into the First Scholars program.
"The one-on-one attention and the resources really helped a lot," she said.
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.