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First Gen Rock Painting
Interim Chancellor Wayne T. Davis poses with first-generation students, faculty, and staff who gathered to sign the Rock on November 8, 2018, to celebrate First-Generation College Student Day.

The Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the Suder Foundation, recently announced its inaugural cohort of First Forward institutions, which includes the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The First Forward designation recognizes institutions of higher education that have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes of first-generation college students. Selected institutions receive professional development, community-building experiences, and a first look at the center’s research and resources.

“We are thrilled by this national recognition. Our first-generation students are pioneers and trailblazers, and while there are some unique challenges to being a first-generation college student, we know that they are incredible and highly successful,” said Karen Sullivan-Vance, associate vice provost for student success. “Through our Division of Academic Success and Transitions and several campus partners, we will continue to recognize, celebrate, and support first-generation students through various programming, activities, and resources.”

Nearly a quarter of UT’s undergraduate students are first generation. A number of faculty and staff are also first-generation students—including Interim Chancellor Wayne T. Davis.

 “UT is committed to supporting our first-generation students and helping them succeed,” he said. “I was a first-generation student myself and know that the challenges these students face are very real. As Tennessee’s flagship higher education institution, UT is a place of aspiration and opportunity for all.”

Students post for a selfie after signing the Rock.
Students post for a selfie after signing the Rock.

Last semester UT celebrated First-Generation College Student Day, a national celebration for universities and colleges across the country to recognize first-generation students, applaud their efforts, and offer support for their continued success.

“Everyone at UT is working harder and investing more than ever to help our first-generation students succeed,” said Provost David Manderscheid. “Our faculty and staff are committed not only to helping students thrive while they are here at our university but also to ensuring they are set up for success after they graduate.”

UT is also looking to expand its LEAD program, which serves as a resource for first-generation students throughout their college career. Currently more than 700 freshmen are in the program, and nearly all are first-generation students.

As a First Forward institution, UT can provide select faculty and staff members with multiple opportunities to engage with peer and aspirational institutions that are also creating environments to improve the experiences and outcomes of first-generation students. Selected institutions will send representatives to the First Forward Workshop this summer in Orlando and will participate in monthly phone calls, virtual professional development, goal setting, blog development, annual reporting, and other activities.

“The center is so pleased to welcome UT into our inaugural cohort of First Forward institutions. Through the application process, it was evident that UT is not only taking steps to serve first-generation students but is prepared to make a long-term commitment and employ strategies for significant scaling and important advances in the future,” said Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-generation Student Success.

After two successful years in the program, institutions are eligible to apply for the Advisory leadership designation.

“First Forward is an exciting opportunity for UT to join an elite community of professionals prepared to share evidence-based practices and resources, troubleshoot challenges, generate knowledge, and continue to advance the success of first-generation students across the country. We are excited to see a groundswell of activity from the First Forward cohort and know UT will be a significant contributor,” said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA.


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,