Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

Making Memphis a First-Gen Forward City

Packing is hard enough—but what about packing for a new life? Like any new adventure, getting ready for college can create questions, anxiety, excitement—and a list of things to buy. For some future freshmen, that’s just another chore to check off the list. But for others, figuring out what to buy, and how to buy it, is a much bigger challenge. 

Collegiate students go on to schools all over the country—the University of Chicago and Columbia are two recent matches. Many grads stay home, attending U of M, CBU, and Rhodes. At Signing Night, they celebrate their choices.

First generation college students, those whose parents did not complete a four-year degree, often leverage loans, grants, and scholarships to find a way to pay for school. Money can be scarce for extras-that-aren’t-really-extras (think toiletries and even textbooks). Because of this, starting college may bring more stress than excitement. 

More than half of American college students are first generation, and more than half of those are the first sibling in their families to head to college. At our own University of Memphis, 30% of students are first generation students, and the school has been deemed a “First-Gen Forward” campus by the Center for First-Generation Student Success. The recognition came because of the way U of M demonstrates “a commitment to ensuring that first-gen students achieve their goals.” 

So how can the broader Memphis community adopt a spirit that is “first-gen forward”? It’s clear that at more than 50% of the college-going population, these are the future leaders of the city. Their success will lead to a stronger Memphis, and there are very tangible things we can do to set them up for success.

A great local example of “first-gen forward” thinking is happening at The Collegiate School of Memphis, located just off Summer Avenue. The school, founded in 2008, offers a private, college preparatory middle and high school experience. 98% of Collegiate students receive tuition assistance to attend Collegiate, and 100% of their graduates receive admission to four-year colleges. 

Collegiate has always served students who were highly likely to be the first in their family to attend college, so they’ve developed programs that bridge the gaps between high school graduation and that first job. These gap-filling programs last at least six years, beginning with college prep during junior year and lasting beyond college graduation. Collegiate alumni programs range from simple but essential—like providing laundry baskets full of dorm room and school supplies—to complex—providing ongoing support and networking opportunities to students as they adapt to college and then begin moving toward employment. 

The Collegiate “Launch a Leader” campaign helps to cover costs for services like these that are extra, but essential. Collegiate Head of School McKenzie Cohen shared her perspective, “Our students never fail to amaze me. They rise to every occasion and their grades and college acceptance letters are proof of that. Because they work so hard, we work hard to remove roadblocks for them. The zip code where they were born, or their parents’ income level, does not determine their potential. And we don’t want the need for dorm room basics, or for an introduction to a local company, to hold them back.” 

The zip code where they were born, or their parents’ income level, does not determine their potential. And we don’t want the need for dorm room basics, or for an introduction to a local company, to hold them back.

MCKENZIE COHEN, HEAD OF SCHOOL, THE COLLEGIATE SCHOOL OF MEMPHIS

Demonstrating how the Memphis community can be first-gen forward, local business CrestCore Realty is investing in Collegiate students. Co-founder Douglas Skipworth talked with us about why the business got involved: “Part of CrestCore’s vision is to help our neighbors build financial security through real estate. Collegiate is our neighbor in the Summer Avenue community, and it makes sense for us to invest in those students and support their college success.” Skipworth also added that donations are being matched right now, making the decision to contribute even easier.

Other middle and high schools around the city are creating programs for alumni—programs specifically targeted at ensuring that first-gen students achieve their goals. We found similar programs at The Soulsville Charter School, KIPP, and New Hope Christian Academy, along with developing programs at Compass Community Schools and Grizz Prep. We invite you to let us know other programs and businesses you see around Memphis that are first-gen forward! 

Things you can do to make Memphis a first-gen forward city:

  • GIVE: Support Collegiate’s Launch a Leader program—your gift will be doubled, so help them reach their goal this month to prepare 100% of their seniors for their first semester at college.
  • GOT JOBS? If you’ve got internships or entry-level jobs, reach out to the Choose901 Alumni program or any of the schools in this blog. They’re all serving a majority first-gen students and alumni and we guarantee they’d love to hear from you.
  • MENTOR! Many of the students in after-school programs today will be the first-gen college students of tomorrow. Help them reach their full potential! The Memphis Grizzlies Foundation can show you all the open mentoring positions in Memphis—let’s fill them!
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