Shanelle’s Story

How Individualized Support (and Federal Policy) Can Change the Odds for First-Generation Students

Shanelle Justice is an adult education teacher in Warren Township in the Indianapolis suburbs. In 2014, she enrolled at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) to pursue a degree in social work. But her higher ed journey nearly took a very different turn.

As a first-generation college student, Shanelle faced a narrow and often difficult pathway to success. Like millions of other students across the country, she struggled with additional barriers and challenges as she worked to balance the complicated demands of being a full-time student without the benefit of family members who went to college to turn to for advice.

Shanelle grappled with anxiety and other mental health challenges as she worked to navigate the complex world of taking college-level coursework, making connections on campus, and accessing financial aid and other resources. Only a few weeks into college, she was overwhelmed—and considering leaving the university.

The good news is that IUPUI had long before made a commitment to providing intensive student support resources specifically designed to help first-generation students. With the support of an InsideTrack coach named Kimmy Benson, Shanelle was able to identify on-campus resources and support services that could help her.

Through one-on-one coaching sessions and check-ins, Kimmy helped Shanelle not only gain the immediate support she needed to overcome her doubts and obstacles in the short term, but also develop the confidence to finish her degree and start a career as an educator. She is now pursuing a master’s degree program in social work with the goal of becoming a therapist who specializes in addiction education and recovery.

Shanelle’s experience is far more similar to the typical college student than most people realize because we tend to associate the college experience with recent high school graduates who receive financial support from their families and fill their time with campus social organizations. But the pop-culture narrative around college bears little resemblance to the realities facing most college students today. Nearly one in four college students today are raising children of their own, more than 70% are working full- or part-time, nearly half are financially independent, and only 16% live on campus. More than 56% are first-generation, and 31% are from low-income backgrounds (Source: TodaysStudents.org).

To help more students achieve their college aspirations, it’s critical that colleges and universities invest in evidence-based supports. And there’s an important role that policymakers can play in making that happen. Federal policymakers have an opportunity to significantly expand resources for students like Shanelle through the federal budget reconciliation language that Congress is currently considering. The language includes a new $9 billion Retention and Completion Grants program, which would help colleges and universities expand evidence-based student support services.

The inclusion of this funding in the federal budget would mark a major shift in how federal higher education policy supports today’s students, building on its historic role of providing grants and loans to promote college access. This new investment would link federal investments in higher education to programs that have a proven positive impact on student retention and completion—making learners more likely to complete their programs of study, succeed in their careers, and realize the full benefits of higher education over their lifetimes.

Student support can make a world of difference for individuals, their families, and their communities. As Shanelle said: “Kimmy’s work with me—helping me during such a dark time in my life—really helped me to want to inspire others who are struggling to know that they are not alone and that they too can overcome their challenges and obstacles.”

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