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UCA received a $1.6 million grant to support the academic success of first-generation, low-income students



Conway, Arkansas – Using grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Strengthening Institutions Program, an Arkansas university is attempting to level the playing field for incoming freshmen.

The University of Central Arkansas will be able to assist first-generation, low-income students thanks to the $1.6 million award.

Most college freshmen find their first year challenging, and their success may be impacted by additional factors like being a first-generation student or having a poor income.

“As a low-income college student, myself, I know that it really helps to have a team there to help you to guide you through,” said Julia Winden Faye, Director of the Office of Student Success at UCA.

The U.S. Department of Education’s $1.6 million will aid UCA in developing that team.

“We really focused the grant on staff that would be available to help our low-income students get off to a great start,” Faye said.
Hired staff will form “Bear Life,” which will be a five-year program for UCA’s first-time, low-income students.

A director, a licensed professional counselor, a full-time administrator, a graduate assistant, and three peer guides will make up Bear Life.

“We think about the questions that they should be asking, maybe even before they think about those questions,” said Nadia Eslinger, Director of Bear Life. “We are preparing things, putting things in place for them before they even arrive, to help them kind of transition through college.”

Eslinger asserts that first-generation college students are particularly impacted by the transition from high school to college.

“They may not have people at home who can say you need to go talk to the registrar, or you need to call your academic advisor, they just may not know those things, and the students may not know what to ask,” Eslinger explained.

Although many of the incoming freshmen are members of Generation Z, who have faced hardships before enrolling in college, Faye stated that the first-year experience still brings difficulties.

“This group went through COVID, they did a lot of online and now when they hit campus, it’s a little different experience,” Faye said.

She continued by saying that UCA’s retention statistics for first-generation, low-income students demonstrate the challenge.

“Our first-year retention rates for this group are lower than our non-Pell eligible and our graduation rates are lower than for our non-Pell eligible students,” Faye said.

These students, who make up 40% of UCA’s incoming freshmen each year, will be the direct focus of Bear Life.

“Any student who fills out FAFSA, their financial aid application, and they qualify as Pell-eligible, they qualify to be a part of the program,” Eslinger said.

Faye related to the program’s goal since, when she first started college, she was also a low-income student.

“We are working out of a personal passion for helping students be successful remembering where we struggled,” Faye said.

Eslinger agreed with that sentiment.

“It’s personal for me because I do want to help students, I think college would have felt different for me if I had a program like this,” Eslinger added.

To ensure that students start off on the proper foot, the federal cash will also go toward financing for 50 low-income students to participate in the Summer Bridge Program at UCA.

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