Notre Dame College Launches First Generation Center Peer Mentor, Leadership Initiative

Notre Dame College is not only coaching its first generation students to help them complete their degrees, but also empowering them to be leaders for others who are the first in their families to attend the College.

The First Generation, or FirstGen, Center at Notre Dame has selected eight sophomore and junior students for an inaugural peer mentor and leadership program. Most students who are the first in their families to pursue bachelor’s degrees often feel isolated and as though they do not belong in college. In response to this need, each of Notre Dame’s newly named peer leaders join professional staff in working certain hours at the on-campus FirstGen Center to offer support to other student members as needed.

“Providing students the opportunity to be peer mentors and leaders definitely makes more of an impact on them and newer members,” said Laurel G. Kaiser, MSW, LISW-S, director of the Center at Notre Dame “Our FirstGen Center coaches can help, but for a student to hear another student say, ‘I’m FirstGen, too. I am here to help. I’ve been there. I am there. You can do this, too.’ That is powerful.”

In addition to a small stipend each semester for their service to the center, the FirstGen leaders are receiving book scholarships through a grant from an anonymous Cleveland-area business. Many first-generation college students are from low-income households and often lack family support to help with expenses such as textbooks and classroom materials.

Just as the leaders are paying forward the resiliency they learned as new students at Notre Dame, they also are donating their textbooks at the end of each semester to a newly developing lending library for first generation students. Now others who are the first in their families to attend the College who may not be able to afford texts will have access to some of the books needed for their courses.

“We want to raise up our first generation students, to help them become more self-sufficient,” Kaiser said, “so we are creating an empowering model to continue to increase their responsibility and self-discipline and to promote skills they will need to be successful in college and the career world.”

First Generation Experience

Those serving as peer leaders are not only available to members of the FirstGen Center but also are required to gain experience and knowledge by utilizing the myriad of services available to students at Notre Dame.

Through a comprehensive training program, each student leader is attending tutoring sessions in the Writing Lab and Dwyer Learning Center, submitting a professional cover letter and resume for review by the Career Services Center and even initiating meetings with professors during office hours, along with taking advantage of other resources available through the College.

“They are literally learning what it means to walk in their shoes,” said Nicole Upshaw, FirstGen Center program coordinator. “When our leaders say, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve done that.’ to other first generation students, we want them to have literally been there.”

According to Upshaw and Kaiser, most of the students selected for the leadership program have already been acting as peer mentors. This new initiative now gives the center the ability to formalize their positions and better develop the potential they have been modeling all along.

First Generation Family

Sophomore Ja’Vae Fleming has only one class on Fridays this semester but has chosen to be on campus most of the day anyway—and not just to study. She has been volunteering her time at the FirstGen Center and attending First Year Seminar classes with the new student members of the center.

“Last year I was in the same position of some of these freshmen. I know what they are going through, and FirstGen has done so much for me. I want to give back,” Fleming said. “Anything that will help others go on in their college careers, anything I can do to help them push through, I want to be able to help.”

An education major at Notre Dame, Fleming has three younger brothers, twins who are 17 and one who is 18. She said she wants to inspire her siblings as well as her first generation student family members at the College.

“I am showing them that if I can do it, then they can, too, because they can. I really did not have anyone to ask questions about college, but FirstGen has been a place for me to start,” she said. “My brothers can go to college. They can make these connections, too. They can succeed.”

First Generation Leaders

Other first generation student peer mentors and leaders for this year are: Arianna Bond, Tramaine Burton, Deja Hutchinson, Brett Kettle, Chase McCullough, Da’Qonn Pulley and Flora Williams.

“These students have naturally stepped into leadership roles by taking ownership of what has been going on in the center,” Upshaw said. “Now we want to help them take the next step. We want them not only to continue develop as individuals, but to become resources for their peers, too.”

The student leaders also are helping to facilitate monthly Mentor Meet-Up sessions, create a newsletter for center members and coordinate other activities and programming for first-generation students at the College. Kaiser and Upshaw hope to expand the new leadership initiative next year.

Learn more about the Notre Dame FirstGen Center online.

October 2017

About Notre Dame College

For almost a century, Notre Dame College has educated a diverse population in the liberal arts for personal, professional and global responsibility. Founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1922, the College has grown strategically to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of students and the dramatic changes in higher education. But it has never lost sight of its emphasis on teaching students not only how to make a good living but also how to live a good life.

Today, the College offers bachelor’s degrees in 30 disciplines plus a variety of master's degrees, certification programs and continuing and professional development programs for adult learners on campus and online. Notre Dame College offers NCAA Division II intercollegiate athletic programs for men and women and is located in a picturesque residential neighborhood just 25 minutes from the heart of Cleveland. Hallmarks of the Notre Dame experience include stimulating academics, personalized attention of dedicated faculty and staff, and small class sizes.

Notre Dame College is located at 4545 College Road in South Euclid. For further information contact Brian Johnston, chief communications officer, at 216.373.5252 or


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