In a basement lounge at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, a few dozen students line up for fried chicken and an array of international sauces, from Indian curry to British pineapple chutney.
This is the Blanding III holiday party. About half the students in the dorm are the first in their families to go to college. They’ve chosen to live together, study together and tonight make gingerbread houses together in a friendly competition.
Cody Russell and Alejandra Sanchez lean over a ping-pong table, attempting to hang tiny frosting icicles on their gingerbread roof.
Cody is from Taylor County, Ky., in the rural heart of the state. He was raised by a single mom. She worked at the Fruit of the Loom factory — before it closed. Then she worked at an auto plant making side mirrors. He says watching her sometimes work two jobs and struggle to pay the bills, he was determined to go to college.
But when he got here, “it was a complete culture shock,” he says.
With its vast campus and almost 30,000 students, most freshmen would find UK daunting. The whole point of this dorm is to help them adjust. Students got to move in a few days early, so they bonded before classes even started. Older students who were also the first in their families to go to college serve as mentors.
“It makes this big university for a lot of us that came from small towns a little bit smaller, and a little bit more like home,” Cody says.
The so-called First Generation Living Learning Community was created to address a crisis in Kentucky. The state has a smaller share of college graduates in the workforce than almost any other state.
At UK, only about 22 percent of first-generation students finish in four years. Just 46 percent graduate in six years.
“So we’re not serving our mission to educate the commonwealth, if we’re sending half of those students home with a broken dream,” says Matthew Deffendall, director of First Generation Initiatives at the university.
Deffendall helped launch the program two years ago to keep more of those students coming back.
“As we know from student development theory, if they make a connection to campus, they’ll want to stay,” he says. “So we thought, why not create a community of other students who were going through the same thing?”
Students don’t just live together. They have events and workshops focused on life skills, and special staff advisers. And they take classes together, like UK 101 — a class on how to navigate college life.
The night after the holiday party, many of the students were in a communications class together presenting digital projects. Faculty lecturer Jami Warren says students in the program seem to catch on more quickly than her other students.
“I think a great deal of that probably comes from the fact that they’re not only taking this course together, but they’re also living together,” she says. “So they do homework together, they have study sessions together.”
In the first years of the program, 92 percent of students have come back for their second year, compared to just over 72 percent of all first-generation students on campus. Their grades are higher, too, says Deffendall.
“So they’re performing stronger, they’re being retained at a higher rate, and they’re forming connections,” he says.
And they’re not just changing their own futures — but that of their families.
Josh Johnson came from Pikeville in Eastern Kentucky, where college wasn’t in the cards for most of his fellow students.
“Most of them go straight in the workforce, or go into coal, because that’s the main industry where I’m from,” he says. “I wanted to have a better life for myself and my children.”
His example has rubbed off on his younger brother; Josh is helping him apply for college now.
But as programs like Kentucky’s have cropped up on other campuses, some worry about isolating first-generation students. One benefit of college is mixing with more advantaged students, says Richard Kahlenberg with the Century Foundation, and those connections pay off in career opportunities later in life.
“To the extent that colleges are encouraging low-income and first-generation students to socialize separately and apart from others, I think that’s not doing those students any good,” he says.
Those in Kentucky’s program say they meet lots of other students. For one thing, after the first year most of them will live off campus or in other housing. Samantha La Mar from Erlanger, Ky., says having that home base has actually helped her branch out.
“Since I got here and was able to kind of open up and meet new people and I started to feel comfortable, I was like, ‘Hey, I met all these people that are like me, so maybe I can say “hi” to the girl sitting next to me in my English class, or maybe I can join a group,’” she says.
Or even lead one. She wants to be resident advisor in the dorm next year, to help other students make the transition.