It’s amazing what a difference a lunch with someone friendly can make for a college freshman.

At Utah State, shared lunches with upperclass mentors are a key feature of a 3-year-old program called Aggie First Scholars, which supports first-generation college freshmen in navigating the university — an institution that is new to them and their families.

Utah State developed the program because the first-year retention rate for first-generation students is about 10 percent lower than for students whose parents went to college.

The school is also seeing “an upward trend in both undergraduate enrollments and graduations for first-generation students,” said Heidi Kesler, Utah State’s director of student retention and completion, in an email.

Out of 4,751 students who graduated from Utah State with bachelor’s degrees Thursday, 477 were first-generation college graduates — about 10% of the graduating class.

Of those first-generation graduates, many served as mentors to first-generation freshman as part of Aggie First Scholars. The program often matches students who have similar academic interests so freshmen can receive guidance specific to their fields.

Karina Hernandez, a public health major, is one of those first-generation graduates who was a mentor.

Hernandez said that even though she wasn’t on the receiving end of the mentoring, her experience mentoring others enhanced her life and college experience.

“It really showed me how to show up for other people, and even though I didn’t have everything figured out, I knew enough to help other people,” Hernandez said. “Being assigned just that title ‘mentor’ gave me the power to believe that whatever I was doing (in school) was right — I already have a pool of resources that I can hand off to the next generation of students.”

Airelle Gimaud, a freshman who started at Utah State in fall 2018, was one of the mentees in the program this past year.

Because mentors meet with more than one mentee, and the whole group has lunch together, first-year students can strike up friendships with other participating freshmen, as Grimaud did at one of the mentoring lunches.

“My experience has been probably been like the picture perfect story of what we really want this program to be,” Grimaud said. “What I like to tell people is me and my best friend, Jasmine, who’s also in the program, were forced to be friends.”

Grimaud is from Washington state, and when she first arrived at Utah State, she told her mom she didn’t think she could handle the change. Her mom said that if things were still difficult at the end of the semester, she could come home.

“For a long time, I had it in my brain that I was just going to go home after a semester,” Grimaud said. “But really those connections with the other people in the program have been the biggest factor in me staying here at USU.”

Grimaud isn’t the only freshman that mentors have helped keep on campus.

Kesler said that early data shows that the mentoring lunches have a strong connection with freshmen retention.

After positive early results with small groups of freshmen in the first two years, the university rapidly expanded the program in its third year.

In fall 2018, Aggie First Scholars was opened to all 641 first-generation freshmen.

The program ultimately served 352 freshmen who opted to participate. These freshmen were divided between 82 volunteer mentors, who were all high-achieving first-generation upperclassmen.

With grant money, the program allows the mentors to check out meal cards and take their mentees to lunch once a month — 99% of freshmen who participated in these lunches during their first semester returned for the second semester, compared to only 90% of freshmen who didn’t.

“That was the finding that I was really excited about and a bit surprised about, that it was participation in those meals and spending time with their mentor that seemed to have the biggest relationship to persistence,” Kesler said.

Kesler acknowledged that there is a chance that students who are more likely to persist in the first place might also be more likely to attend the lunches — and the program will continue to collect data and have analysts tease out which elements of the program might be causing freshmen to stay.

Though the program is still young and the data collection continues, mentors say they know it’s having an impact.

“I was very impressed with what a bunch of like-minded students can do at a university,” said Jesse Steadman, a graduating mentor and valedictorian of the college of science who is heading to medical school in the fall. “I think the program is something special, and I hope it will be expanded to other universities ... because it is such an amazing program, and I think the numbers speak for themselves.”

Kesler emphasized that the program focuses on students’ strengths.

“One of the things that I think is really important is that these students recognize that the university recognizes that they are tenacious, and they are hardworking, and that they are very much qualified to be students here, to succeed — that the university believes in them,” Kesler said.

“The program is not remediation,” Kesler continued. “It really is about celebrating what they bring to the institution and recognizing the great potential in these students to be leaders on our campus.”

University leaders — including President Noelle Cockett, who is herself a first-generation college graduate — say they’re committed to creating the institution-wide recognition of first-generation students that Kesler describes.

“USU’s mission to make higher education accessible creates opportunities for first-generation students to excel,” said Robert Wagner, vice president of academic and instructional services. “Our faculty and staff are constantly looking for new resources and support systems to ensure these students are empowered to achieve their academic and professional goals.”

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