TriAlpha ceremony table with certificates
By Roanoke College News

New Honor Society recognizes first-generation college students

As the semester came to a close, Roanoke College accepted the charter for the Gamma Omicron chapter of a new honor society, Alpha Alpha Alpha (Tri-Alpha), which recognizes the academic achievements of first-generation college students. This honorary society is formed to recognize first-generation college students and their work and academic achievement, to help them connect with others and to support up and coming first-generation students. Roanoke’s chapter is one of only five in Virginia and students inducted earn lifetime membership.  

Dean of Students Tom Rambo accepted the charter on behalf of Roanoke College at a ceremony on May 13. Dr. Brenda Poggendorf, vice president of admissions and dean of enrollment, spoke at the ceremony.  

“Roanoke College has always been a good place for first-generation students because of the kind of community that is here,” Poggendorf said. “Faculty and staff truly care about our students.”  

Poggendorf said each student likely had someone from the Roanoke College community who “stepped up or stepped in to serve as a guide, a mentor, or a friend” along their Roanoke College journey. 

“Over 20% of the students who will walk across the stage and graduate from Roanoke College over the next two weeks are first-gen students,” said Poggendorf, referring to the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021. “There is so much to be proud of!”  

She encouraged these students to be the seed that helps other students to understand the importance of education.  

“If you plant those tiny seeds of hope and possibility, you just may inspire them to make appropriate decisions and build confidence that will allow them to gain admission to college,” Poggendorf said. 

At the chartering ceremony, 65 students were inducted into the new Gamma Omicron chapter. In addition to the students, two faculty members were inducted: Dr. Chris Lassiter, professor of biology, and Dr. Julia Sienkewicz, associate professor of art history. Three staff members were inducted: Tom Rambo, dean of students, Joe Mills, assistant director of campus safety, and Jimmy Whited, director of residence life. Sienkewicz and Whited are the advisors for Tri-Alpha. 

Each inductee signed into a book recording the chapter’s new history. Seniors received honor cords to wear during commencement.  

 “The establishment of the Tri-Alpha chapter here at Roanoke College is a great step forward in recognizing and celebrating more diverse backgrounds of our student population,” Whited, who is a first-generation college graduate, said. “First-generation students tend to face some challenges and roadblocks that others may not. Thus, having this Honor Society, we have opportunity to highlight the great work being done by our students.” 

“The creation of Roanoke’s Gamma Omicron chapter of Tri-Alpha is a meaningful celebration of the high achievements of the first-generation college students in our community,” Sienkewicz said. “Roughly one quarter of the students at Roanoke College are first-generation students and, of these, another fourth qualified for the high bar of an invitation to join Tri-Alpha in spring 2021. I hope that this honor society will play a sustained and significant role in recognizing and uplifting the first-generation community at Roanoke, while also being just one step in the work ahead of us to support all first-generation students at Roanoke College.” 

“ The establishment of the Tri-Alpha chapter here at Roanoke College is a great step forward in recognizing and celebrating more diverse backgrounds of our student population.”

Jimmy Whited, director of residence life and Tri-Alpha advisor

Monica Taft ‘21, one of the charter members,  was a literary studies major and history minor. “As a first-generation student, there are few we can turn to for insight into the intricacies of college life,” Taft said. “As a member of Tri-Alpha we are granted a community of those who fully understand the complexities of being a first-gen student. Tri-Alpha not only gives recognition to the hard work being done, but also a system of support and understanding.” 

“I am so thankful for the support of the Tri-Alpha advisors and fellow members,” she said. “I look forward to watching the chapter grow as new students find they are not alone and will be recognized for their efforts while being supported by such dedicated members of the Roanoke College community.” 

A student organization, RC Aspire, was founded for first-generation students. “I am so excited for RC Aspire to have more of a presence this next upcoming year at Roanoke,” Carinna Householder ‘21 said. She’s a biology major now in a Ph.D. program for cell/molecular biology. “A quarter of the population at Roanoke are first-generation college students .... Hopefully, establishing the club and the honors society, will provide a better sense of community.” 

To qualify for Tri-Alpha membership, students must be a degree candidate, have completed three full-time terms of study, have a 3.2 GPA and come from a family where neither parent earned a bachelor’s degree.  

Sienkewicz and Whited hope to induct more first-generation faculty and staff members, and they are open to nominations from the campus community. Nominations may also be made for alumni members or honorary members (those who have been advocates for first-generation students.) Nominations or questions may be directed to Dr. Sienkewicz at

Tri Alpha Honor Society Ceremony