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Supporting Low-Income, First-Gen College Students


The following article is from Medium.

“This week has been pretty tough, if I’m being completely honest. There has been a lot of work and tests and applying for scholarships. The earliest I’ve been able to go asleep is 1:30 a.m. and I’m pretty sure I’m starting to lose it from lack of sleep.”

-High School Class of 2022 and ECMC Scholar, Virginia

As the manager of the ECMC Scholars Program, a unique scholarship program that provides two years of mentoring in high school for low-income, first-generation college students prior to them receiving the funding for their postsecondary education, I would say students are not getting back to normal. Instead, they are getting back to “better” by realizing they are resilient, persistent and adaptable.

We know from studies that first-gen students need extra support and often lack the social networking capital needed to navigate life after high school. But we also know that more than 40% of college students are first generation, and when they do succeed, they can break cycles of poverty and bolster our economy.

Our approach to supporting low-income students who show potential — rather than focusing solely on academic merit — involves a comprehensive, two-year mentoring and college prep program that ultimately provides a $6,000 scholarship toward the postsecondary education pathway of their choice.

However, the ECMC Scholars Program is not a “one and done” scholarship awarded in the fall term of the freshman year of college. Students can request funds from the $6,000 scholarship for up to six years after high school graduation. Most of our Scholars qualify for the Pell Grant and other federal grants/scholarships, and their ECMC scholarship may be used in addition to federal aid to pay for tuition/fees, books, food, transportation and living expenses to support persistence through postsecondary education. We believe this approach can help students address both the direct and indirect costs of receiving an education and help them overcome many of the unforeseen challenges that can hold first-gen students back from success.

It is essential to understand that simply accessing postsecondary education isn’t going to ensure a student achieves a credential. In addition to scholarship support, we connect our Scholars to near-peer college coaches for the first two years of their postsecondary experience through Beyond12, a digital coaching platform that helps provide students with academic, social and emotional support. This program has been widely appreciated, with our Scholars students not only meeting persistence rates in their home states but exceeding national persistence rates.

The support has been invaluable to our students, with many saying that it meant something not only to them but also to their family and that, with the program, they feel more prepared for college.

In their own words:

“This means so much to my family and me! You don’t even understand!”

-High School Class of 2021 ECMC Scholar, Connecticut

This program was very beneficial as a first-generation student. I feel I am prepared for college.”

-High School Class of 2021 ECMC Scholar, Connecticut

The program has prepared me in many ways for college and my knowledge about the world has grown because of it.”

-High School Class of 2022 ECMC Scholar, Oregon

“I feel like this program is an amazing way for students to learn about college-related topics and important things that need to be known when attending college, while still earning a scholarship towards college expenses, which is so worth all of the hard work to go through.”

-High School Class of 2022 ECMC Scholar, Oregon

“I honestly feel like words can’t explain how dedicated you were to stay the course in order for us to have success.”

-High School Class of 2021 ECMC Scholar, Virginia

Over the past 17 years, ECMC has awarded $20.1 million in scholarships to 3,355 students in Virginia, Oregon and Connecticut.

As we look to promote greater access for more students pursuing postsecondary education, we cannot forget that we need to empower the most resilient to persist, complete and achieve success.

By Jan Smith, ECMC Scholars Program manager