Logo that says RC Aspire with a star

Ashley Roop '23 designed and drew this logo for RC Aspire.

3.16.2021
By Roanoke College News

New program aims to help first-generation students transition to college life

More than a quarter of current Roanoke College students are first-generation college students, an experience that is easier for some than others.

During his two years at Roanoke, first-generation college student Jimmy Shiflett ‘23 has had to learn a number of skills on his own. For example, he’s learned how to write academic papers from a mix of paying close attention in class and lessons on YouTube.

The larger problem, he said, is figuring out how to manage his time.

“That’s one of the reasons that I’m having these struggles. I don’t really have anyone to say, ‘This is how you’re supposed to do that,’” Shiflett said.

Students such as Shiflett now have an organized community where first-generation students can get guidance. It is called RC Aspire, headed by Associate Professor of Fine Arts Julia Sienkewicz, who regularly meets with first-generation college students on campus.

This spring semester, there are 451 students enrolled at Roanoke whose parents or guardians do not have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That is just shy of 26 percent of the student body.

Over the past few years, Sienkewicz has had one-on-one meetings with students, serving as another advisor of sorts to help them transition to life on campus. Slowly, the community has become more organized, though it didn’t have an official name until recently. Sienkewicz said a great deal of thought went into “RC Aspire” as the name.

“One thing that I personally really like about the name is that it has that concept built right into it,” Sienkewicz said. “When a first-generation student enters college, they may know that their goal is to get a degree — they have big aspirations. But they may not know how to make these dreams a reality, and the way that college works may be quite different from what they imagine.

“A program like this is a way to help students take ownership of their college experience, setting realistic goals and making their dreams concrete and actionable,” she said. “‘Aspire’ is uplifting and inspirational, while also really underlining the goals of the program.”

“A program like this is a way to help students take ownership of their college experience, setting realistic goals and making their dreams concrete and actionable.”

Associate Professor of Fine Arts Julia Sienkewicz

Madi Nuckles ‘23, another first-generation college student who talks regularly with Sienkewicz, agreed that college is different from what she expected.

“There’s more than one way to become what you want to be, and I told [Sienkewicz] that I didn’t really know that. We talked about how there’s always different paths to get to one destination,” Nuckles said. “At my [high] school, they said, ‘If you want to do this, you have to go to this school and major in this and that’s the only way.’ But at Roanoke, it’s a liberal arts education. We take a lot of classes that don’t really have anything to do with our majors, but it’s a well-rounded education.”

Nuckles said having someone knowledgeable to advise about how to take full advantage of academic opportunities has been a great help. She said she probably wouldn’t have added an art history minor if it hadn’t been for conversations with Sienkewicz.

RC Aspire is having weekly meetings this semester, and those interested in attending can email Sienkewicz at sienkewicz@roanoke.edu or call her office at 540-375-2553.

RC Aspire is focused on mentorship, but it’s also connecting students with various other aspects of campus. Sienkewicz pointed to several faculty and staff members on campus who have offered their time and advice to students: Director of Residence Life Jimmy Whited, Assistant Director of Residence Life Hannah Phillips, Director of Multicultural Affairs Natasha Saunders, Grant Consultant Jenny Bradley, and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs & Student Engagement Rich Grant. She also said Dr. Chris Lassiter, professor of biology, has shared experiences with students and has collaborated with Sienkewicz on how to further build the program in the future.

“As the program is developing,” Sienkewicz said, “I know that mentorship and goal setting will be key to helping this population of students reach their fullest potential at Roanoke.”