Mason’s First-Gen+ Center helps students navigate the university experience

woman and a student look at a laptop
First-Gen+ Center Assistant Director Nakia Waters works with Mason student Dung Ngo. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

George Mason University prides itself on its diversity and the number of first-generation college students it attracts. To help first-generation college students navigate a large university, Mason’s University Life created the First-Gen+ Center in 2021 to provide resources, mentoring and programming.

The First-Gen+ Center’s mission is to support students who are historically underrepresented in higher education and their allies, while specifically focusing on students who identify as first-generation, who identify as undocumented, have refugee status, or belong to families with limited income.

In 2020, about 26% of Mason students described themselves as first-generation college students. About 7,500 currently enrolled Mason students are connected to the First-Gen Center.

“We take seriously our role in helping students who might not otherwise have the chance [to] pursue their higher education with success,” said Amber Holton-Thomas, director of the center. “The University Life vision is that ‘every student succeeds,’ and one big way our office helps is by demystifying the university process.”

Housed in Student Union Building I on the Fairfax Campus, The First-Gen+ Center can trace its roots to the Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP), which began in 1990 as the Summer Transition Program. Back in person this summer for the first time since the pandemic, STEP was Mason’s first effort to help first-generation college students get acclimated to the college experience by providing academic preparation, career exploration, and empowerment activities the summer before beginning college. STEP joined University Life in 2005.

As Mason administrators determined how best to leverage the university resources, the First-Gen+ Center, which is, was created in 2021.

President Gregory Washington has emphasized the importance to Mason of its first-generation students.

“We've always prided ourselves on putting students first, and they have truly shown us what they are made of,” Washington told an audience in EagleBank Arena during his investiture address. “Most of our students hail from historically disenfranchised communities—three out of 10 are first-generation. They have a vision for a better life for themselves, their families and their communities, and they are not strangers to adversity, occasional rejection, and hard work.”

In addition to organizing STEP, the First-Gen+ Center, which is housed in Student Union Building I on the Fairfax Campus, facilitates scholarships, offers one-on-one discussion sessions, oversees a mentoring program, creates programming for First-Gen Week, coordinates training related to undocumented students, hosts community building events and sends out a weekly newsletter to students on the mailing list.

The center has both professional and student staff; the latter work in the office or volunteer as mentors and tend to be first-generation college students themselves, intent on giving back, said Holton-Thomas.

Oliver Yu, a first-generation college student and Mason junior majoring in computational and data sciences, agreed.

“The students that work within the First-Gen+ Center are passionate in their roles and look for ways to best utilize them to help others,” said Yu, who worked for the center as a research assistant.

Mason’s definition of a first-generation college student includes someone whose parent or legal guardian(s) did not receive or complete post-secondary education, or who received a two-year degree or earned any level of post-secondary school outside the United States.

“Sometimes we have Mason students come up to us and realize that they are also first-generation college students because of how we define it,” Holton-Thomas said. “Just because, for example, someone’s parents got an advanced degree outside the U.S. doesn’t mean they understand or have experience with navigating the U.S. college system, so we are here to help.”