Putting What Matters Presby First+


Stephanie Keene and Amy Davis with a group of Presby First+ students. © Stephanie Keene

Mitchell Mercer, Sports Editor

Colleges and universities across the country are recognizing and promoting a particular group of students: first-generation college students, otherwise known to students at Presbyterian College as Presby First+.

According to Best Colleges, a first-generation college student is someone who is going to college for the first time in their respective family, meaning that neither parent earned a college degree. Oftentimes, first-generation families have rarely attempted or have never experienced higher education.

In the United States, 24% of first-generation college students had parents with no postsecondary education, 56% had parents with no bachelor’s degree, and 59% were the first in their families to go to college, reported by the Center for First-Generation Student Success. 

PC is hosting various activities over the course of this year to promote their Presby First+ students, including Presby First+ study halls, meetings, and open-mic nights. Although these events target Presby First+ students, all students are welcome to participate in these activities.

Stephanie Keene, the Associate Director of Academic Success & Presby First+ Coordinator, is the woman to talk to on campus about all things Presby First+. After graduating from Western Kentucky University with a degree in journalism and teaching in South Korea, Keene decided that she wanted to work in education. Eventually, Keene made her way to Presbyterian College, where she helped to start the Presby First+ program.

Keene puts a lot of effort into planning events because her main objective is to help first-generation students have a great college experience and get the resources they need to succeed.

“With our programming, it’s about the development and support. I want them to be supported academically, socially, emotionally, spiritually, and everything all around. We have the study hall because sometimes they don’t know where to study. We have internship workshops specifically for first-generation students,” Keene said. “I think there’s a level of comfort when you know everyone in attendance shares a commonality with you.”

Entertainment events are typically open to all students, but it is highly encouraged for first-generation students to attend. Keene emphasized that these events are designed to build community among Presby First+ students, as well as help them build relationships with other students on campus. 

“A lot of opportunities are actually open to all students. The open mic-night is open to anyone, for example. One thing that our students talk about is the community and where I belong. By showing them this person is first-generation and this person is first-generation, it helps give that sense of comfort and build that community,” Keene said. “That’s why we have a mix of social events and entertainment events so they can have fun.”

One of the students involved, Hallie Ridings, is a sophomore at PC. Her parents were born in the baby boomer era, and like many of their peers, they entered the workforce after graduation without going to college. Ridings’ mom works for Spartanburg County School District Five as a database manager, and her dad owns a small landscaping business.

But, even though her parents have been successful, Ridings admitted the college application and decision making process were difficult because she could not always rely on her parents for assistance.

“Growing up in a household where neither parent went to college was hard in the sense that they couldn’t provide me a lot of guidance on the application process, [or] the process for financial aid. Otherwise, they were very supportive of my decision to go to college,” Ridings said. “It was really difficult to put myself on my own feet just because I didn’t have any prior experience in applying to schools or applying for things on my own.”

Despite these obstacles, Ridings chose PC because of her strong application and the offer she received, in large part because of her competitive academics and persistence at accomplishing her goals. In her first year at PC, Ridings was drawn to the Political Science Department, and now has the goal to pursue a career in politics post-graduation.  

Shortly after arriving at PC her freshman year, Ridings got involved with Presby First+, and the program has had a major impact on her time at PC. 

“They have helped tremendously, especially my first semester of my freshman year. I had a grandparent that passed away that I was very close with. There was a lot of stuff, especially mental health wise. School is a lot. The more that I thought about it, just having that support system there is really what got me through,” Ridings said.

Makayla Grady is another student on campus a part of Presby First+, a program that has helped her have a positive experience at PC.

“My first year here, I had to figure everything out on my own. So, when we started this club last year, I was really excited because I wanted to provide other first-gen students with the help that I wish I had,” Grady said.“It’s also a great way to connect with other first-gen students, learn about events that are happening on campus, and is a good place to just talk with other students who are facing the same issues as you.”

The biggest piece of advice Ridings could give future PC students who identify as first generation is to come in with the understanding that it won’t be an easy adjustment, but that Presby First+ offers a great support system for students entering the unknown. 

“It’s okay to not perfect that first year or that first semester or whatever you are aiming towards because college is hard. College is tricky to navigate, especially if you don’t have much guidance there for you. Never stop believing in yourself, all the hard work will pay off,” Ridings said.

Keene wants to invite continuing generation students – those who do not identify as first-generation college students – to encourage and support members of Presby First+ as best they can. She also encourages Presby First+ student’s to do the same. 

“It’s important for continuing generation students to learn about the struggles first generation students face because as college students, they are all facing the same struggles or very similar, but maybe in a modified way. I think it’s beneficial for first generation and continuing generation students to come together and support each other because we are all in this together,” Keene said.

Agreeing with Keene, Ridings pleads with continuing generation college students to help their counterparts get the support they need to succeed during their time at PC. 

“Be that helping hand towards others for first generation college students because it means so much more than you realize,” Ridings said.

Grady’s final message to students was to go out and find the resources they need to be successful. For first-generation college students, this means getting in touch with Presby First+ to meet Keene, a mentor who can help acclimate them to campus life, and to connect with other students who are facing similar challenges.

“First-generation students often have difficulty navigating college because we don’t have the same resources as everyone else, such as lack of knowledge about college, but this program provides us with those resources,” Grady said. “Many first-gen students struggle to ask for help, get involved on campus, and connect with their peers, but this program provides us with the opportunity to do so.”