Program helps students achieve major milestone

By Rachel Aretakis

A group of students are reaching a milestone no one else in their families has: completion of their first semester as a college student.

The First Scholars Program provides a holistic array of resources including mentoring, support programs, activities and scholarships for students whose parents did not attend college, Director of the First Scholars Program Matthew Deffendall said.

Currently, there are 20 scholars in the program, and the program is accepting 20 more for next fall.

One of the scholars is Brandy Denton, a first generation student who is studying special education for moderate and severe disabilities.

“A lot of people view first gen (students) as having uneducated parents, but my parents are educated. They just didn’t go to college,” Denton said.

Denton said that her parents have been supportive of her going to college, and that her motivation to get a degree started when she worked with students with disabilities during her senior year of high school.

Students in the First Scholars Program receive a $5,000 scholarship, as well as peer and faculty mentors and tutoring. Scholars participate in service projects, workshops and retreats, and they develop an individualized strategic plan to graduate in four years, Deffendall said.

“They will map out a step-by-step process of what is going to happen over the next three years … it’s a roadmap to work from and guide them,” Deffendall said.

Denton said that through the program, she has met a lot of people and has been provided with many resources and opportunities.

Another scholar in the program, Tony Kao, said that the program has given him people with whom he can relate and who are in the same position as him.

Kao, a pre-mechanical engineering major, said that his main motivation for coming to college has been his parents.

“They’ve done a lot for me, so doing my best in college is the least I can do to make it up to them,” Kao said.

Kao said that working with Deffendall has made his adjustment to college life much easier, but he said his adjustment has not been that difficult because he is close to home and came to school with a lot of friends.

The First Scholars Program was started in 2009 when UK received a grant from the Suder Foundation in Texas to create a program to that focuses on first generation student success. UK was one of the two universities chosen out of 54 applicants, Deffendall said.

Deffendall said that one of the reasons UK was selected was because of the existing resources already offered to students.

The first phase of the $1.1 million grant was to plan and organize the program, and now it has moved into the operational grant for the next five years, Deffendall said.

The average first semester GPA of the students in the First Scholars Program last fall was 3.1 compared to the average UK student GPA of 2.75, Deffendall said.

Deffendall said based on the scholars’ success, he has hope for other UK students and that this type of support could help improve the overall retention and graduation rate for UK.

“What makes me most proud is the students we selected are your average UK student … because of resources and support we see that additional intervention can have an impact on student success,” Deffendall said.

Deffendall said he hopes to one day be able to reach out to all first generation students at UK.

“I want every first generation (student) in Kentucky to know that UK is the place for them because we understand, we will support you and we will help you change your family tree,” Deffendall said.