Western Colorado University Vice President of Academic Affairs, Bill Niemi came from humble beginnings with hardworking parents who themselves did not have the opportunity to attend college.
Still, he was exposed to higher education and on-campus life at a young age. His mother was employed by Humboldt State University in California, where Niemi was able to see first-hand what benefits came with academic achievement. By being surrounded with mentors and models in higher education, Niemi was inspired to further his studies following high school.
“From being around a campus, my family expected that I would go to college,” said Niemi. “I was probably pretty lucky in that respect.”
Working Through Financial Challenges
Yet, despite that expectation and the encouragement of others, there were still challenges to obtaining a degree—namely financial ones. To pay for his education, Niemi held multiple jobs throughout college and graduate school, something he said weighed on him as he endeavored to be a serious student. Now a top administrator at Western, Niemi realizes the benefit of his hard work and perseverance—and being the first in his family to earn a college degree.
There are many like Niemi: first-generation students who face similar, if not more difficult challenges, such college readiness and lack of family support. Now, Western is helping to ease the burden on these students by offering financial assistance and building a culture of support.
Increasing Access at Western
In fall 2021, Western is awarding the First-Generation Scholarship designed to ease some financial strain and increase access. Qualified undergraduate students automatically will receive a $500, four-year scholarship upon acceptance to Western. No scholarship application is required. This institutional scholarship applies to students who meet Colorado Department of Higher Education’s definition of a first-generation undergraduate student: “who until the age of 18 primarily resided with a single parent who does not, or with parents or guardians both of whom do not, possesses a bachelor’s degree.”
In addition to financial aid, Western is making strides to provide other forms of support. Western Ute Hall Resident Director Joel Kaskinen has actively engaged with first-generation students. Over the past few years, he has hosted luncheons, social gatherings and workshops to help students become acclimated to their new environment. This year he taught a course focusing on the transition to college without family support. The main themes for the course were identity and values, why Western and future career aspirations. He shared these lessons from experience.
“I had a really great time teaching this course and was surprised at how knowledgeable and prepared the students in my course were—a huge difference from where I was at as a first year, first-generation student ten years ago,” said Kaskinen.
Largely, Kaskinen said that by connecting students to their new campus and helping remove other barriers such as cost is what helps to make first-generation students a success. It’s work close to his heart, having been the first in his family to leave a small, rural community in Northern Michigan a decade ago.
“I didn’t understand how class schedules and socializing came naturally to others, I didn’t understand the language academics often use, and I didn’t understand how other students in my peer circle could not work while attending school, because I had to make ends meet on my own,” Kaskinen said. “So, I guess this work is engrained into who I am as a higher education professional.”
Discover a Sense of Community
Kaskinen said students need to feel seen and valued, and the diversity of the group is vast. Many students, he said, need that extra attention to transition into college life and discover a sense of community.
“I make it my goal to serve these students and let them know that I’m here for them in a vulnerable and unique way that they may not get in other professionals,” Kaskinen said. “I want to show up for students in a way that I needed someone to show up for me when I was a freshman and sophomore trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.”
To learn more about financial aid and scholarship opportunities at Western, see the scholarships page.
Author Credit: Chris Rourke
Photo Credit: F4D Studio