Kennesaw State promotes success for first-generation college students

KENNESAW, Ga. | Jun 7, 2021

Madeleine Carden
Madeleine Carden

Madeleine Carden was apprehensive about being the first person in her family to attend college. However, she felt at home right away at Kennesaw State through the University’s initiatives to help first-generation students succeed.

Early in her freshman year, Carden attended the inaugural meeting of First-Gen Owls, a registered student organization that strives to build interpersonal skills, connections and a sense of belonging among its members. Carden described that meeting as “an eye-opening experience,” as she met several KSU alumni who were enjoying successful careers after having been the first in their families to earn college degrees.

“I started to realize there are so many other people like me and so many resources for people like me. Now I’ve become a resource to other students who came in like I did,” said Carden, now a senior nursing student and the president of First-Gen Owls. “That was the moment I realized it’s actually awesome that I’m first-generation. Now it is something I am so proud of.”

About 38 percent of Kennesaw State’s more than 41,000 students identify as first-generation, which the University defines as students whose parents or guardians did not attain a four-year college degree.

In 2019, Kennesaw State was one of only two universities in Georgia and 80 nationwide named to the Center for First-Generation Student Success’ inaugural cohort of institutions. The designation recognizes colleges and universities that have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes for first-generation college students.

Leading that effort are Kennesaw State’s First-Forward campus liaisons Shameka Wells, interim director of KSU’s Cultural and Community Centers, and Natasha Lovelace Habers, director of learning communities. They are responsible for “championing first-generation student initiatives at the University and striving for KSU to be a model for our peer institutions as the standard for first-generation student success,” Lovelace Habers explained.

Along with First-Gen Owls, Kennesaw State has several initiatives to help support student success, including a living-learning village where 30 first-generation students reside on campus; learning communities that group about 25 first-semester students together in courses with a common theme; and resources through the Cultural and Community Centers. successful Thrive program helps students with the transition to college and provides support for them to maintain the HOPE scholarship.

Another step toward helping first-generation students emerged in 2018 when Kennesaw State announced its first cohort of Coca-Cola First Generation Scholars. The program, which provides scholarships and support services to first-generation college students, is supported by a $1.25 million contribution from The Coca-Cola Foundation.

“Having so many first-generation students at KSU brings more life to the institution because their great diversity of thought and experience enhances every aspect of the University’s teaching and research,” said Marla Bell, associate vice provost for student success. “Fostering student success is not one-size-fits-all, so providing a variety of first-generation programs and supports and purposely connecting these students with them as early as possible is of utmost importance.”

Different Backgrounds, Similar Success

Sophomore political science major Joshwell Thompson found his first-gen connection with the African American Male Initiative (AAMI), which focuses on increasing the enrollment, retention and graduation rates of Black males at Kennesaw State. As Thompson explained, “AAMI utilizes brotherhood to boost your professionalism, academic abilities and leadership skills.”

Thompson said that his family has dealt with several struggles through the years, including financial hardships and addiction, and he wants to “break those chains” by earning a college degree. Thompson’s greatest motivation stems from a tragic day two years ago when his eldest brother died, leaving behind four children.

“It means a lot to set an example for my nephews and niece, to be that inspiration they all can look to as the one who’s doing this,” Thompson said. “Sometimes people can succumb to their environment, but I want to step up and get my family to places in life we haven’t been.”

Carden faced a different set of family circumstances, being raised by her grandparents from the time she was 4 years old. Carden praised her grandparents for always supporting her and said she chose Kennesaw State primarily so she could attend college near their home in Acworth.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Carden is pursuing a career in healthcare and she is on track to earn her nursing degree from KSU this year. She has thrived at Kennesaw State, including earning a global learning scholarship and studying in France after learning of study abroad opportunities during her first-year seminar.

“Being a first-gen student at KSU has been life-changing,” Carden said. “I didn’t have the resources that other students had, like just being able to ask your parents simple questions about tax information for your financial aid. I am grateful that KSU has so many opportunities for students like me.”

Carden’s predecessor as president of First-Gen Owls, senior Felicia Echeverria, is not only a first-generation student, but also a non-traditional one. Married with two children, Echeverria said she “could not repeat the cycle” of growing up impoverished and having a traumatic childhood, and she is completing her psychology degree while serving as an advisor on the First-Gen Owls leadership team.

“Being a first-generation student is not easy, so having a registered student organization enables us to come together and lift each other up,” Echeverria said. “Being first-gen is badge of honor that I wear proudly and am excited to represent.”

– Paul Floeckher

Photos by Jason Getz

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit