Being First

The students who took part in Campbell’s new first-generation program four years ago are seniors today. They talk about how the mentorships and focus on their well-being helped them beat the odds and succeed.


Photo: “Being able to be vulnerable and share my struggles was huge for me. And I feel like it made me a better listener, and made me someone who can help others open up as well.” — Geena Matthews


By Kate Stoneburner

Growing up in nearby Erwin, North Carolina, Geena Matthews remembers being in the back seat as her parents drove past Campbell University on a regular basis. She always thought the signs there spelled “Camp Bell,” which sounded exciting to her.

She explored colleges a little further from home after high school, but chose Campbell because she liked the smaller atmosphere and the idea that she could be more than just a number in Buies Creek. She was an only child and a high achiever — and very determined to succeed.

“I was so adamant about getting good scholarships that I would turn in scholarship applications every day of high school during second period,” Matthews recalls. “Honestly, failure was not an option.”

Neither of her parents had attended college, but Matthews learned what hard work looked like growing up with her grandparents, who jumped into the military and workforce straight after high school. Matthews joined Campbell’s program for first-generation college students as a freshman, figuring that while she may not really need it, having a mentor couldn’t hurt and might help.

“As a mentor, it’s huge when students continue to come to you as a resource after the formal mentorship period ends. That the student came to me, that she felt that someone knew her, wouldn’t judge her and would try to understand was huge.” — Dr. Michelle Perez

“I always wanted to go to college and wanted to do something big, and I knew what to expect of the academics,” she says. “But no one prepared me for losing all of my high school friends to far away places and having to build a new circle. Having a mentor gave me someone to talk to when my family couldn’t understand what I was going through.”

Matthews’ mentorship was one of many in the First Generation Camels program designed to provide students like her with meaningful relationships with faculty, staff and alumni who were also first-generation college students. Now in its fourth year, the program has led to the formation of a student-led First Generation Club and has fostered more than 100 mentoring relationships that guide students through college life and beyond.

The program is headed by Michelle Pérez, who was not only the first in her immediate family to attend college, but the first to leave Puerto Rico for New York City to attend Manhattan College. She recalls stepping off the plane for her first semester with only two suitcases, neither of which contained a winter coat.

Pérez earned her degree in four years. She went on to earn a master’s degree from Florida State two years later. A doctor of education degree came in 2016. As Associate Vice President for Student Success and a student mentor herself, Pérez is working to help students follow in her footsteps against the odds — and to help improve those odds for future generations.

Today, the odds of graduation for first-generation students are not insurmountable, but not favorable, either. In a 2018 NCES study, first-gen students were more than twice as likely to leave school within three years (33 percent) than students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree (14 percent). And only 48 percent of first-gen students are on track to graduate three years after enrollment, compared to about 66 percent of non-first-gen students.

Statistically, Campbell’s first-generation program has been making a measurable difference. A nationwide Pell study showed that 27 percent of all first-generation college-goers graduated within four years. At Campbell, that number is 52 percent. Numbers aside, Pérez knew the program was getting something right when she noticed mentorships lasting longer than the one-year commitment and turning into lasting relationships.

The first-gen program helped Matthews build new friendships as a commuting student. She bonded with other first-gen classmates at program events like basketball games and club meetings.

Her peer mentor, Eboni Malloy, became a fast friend. Matthews remembers the first time she ever opened up to Malloy — when she struggled with a class in her first semester.

“I was embarrassed that I was having such a hard time when I’d done so well in high school. I just felt like I couldn’t ask anyone for help in class or I would give myself away as not belonging.”

Her mentor listened. And then recommended tutoring. But as it turned out, all Matthews needed was to know someone cared and she did belong. She went all in with her studying and passed on her own. Now, Matthews is a mentor herself in the Lundy-Fetterman School of Business peer mentorship program.

“Being able to be vulnerable and share my struggles was huge for me,” she says. “And I feel like it made me a better listener, and made me someone who can help others open up as well.”


The vulnerability that changed Matthews’ college experience and what makes good mentorship work is the focus of years of research by Laura Lunsford, assistant dean and professor of psychology at Campbell.

Lunsford wrote the definitive Handbook for Managing Mentoring Programs and co-edited the Sage Handbook of Mentoring, in addition to publishing over 40 peer-reviewed articles, chapters, and books on mentoring and leadership development. She has presented on mentoring at conferences sponsored by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, American Psychological Association, Association for Psychological Science, American Educational Research Association, among others. And as a first-generation college student herself, Lunsford not only brings years of study, but personal experience to the table as a peer mentor for the program.

In her practice as a mentor, Lunsford has observed that while first-generation students don’t necessarily have a knowledge gap to close when it comes to adjusting to college life, they do often lack confidence. For example, one of her mentees was an excellent candidate to become a peer mentor to other students. Lunsford encouraged her to apply, and was sincerely thanked later for the boost that helped her mentee gain entry into a fulfilling and resume-building role.

“She just needed someone to say ‘you’re good enough,’” Lunsford says. “I think that confidence building piece — the feeling of being invited in — and encouragement, are key to those who are the first in their family to embark on a four-year college adventure.”


“The independence is different now being away from home. You can’t coast.” — Elijah Daniels

Family support is one of the keys to student success at college, promoting psychological well-being and greater student engagement. A 2019 Research in Higher Education study even shows that a family’s emotional support has a greater impact on student outcomes than family financial support. Students whose families supported their decision to earn a degree were 19 percent more likely to have a GPA of 3.0 or higher and 24 percent more likely to finish a second year of college.

Family support was never an issue for freshman Elijah Daniels. Daniels was in middle school when a basketball injury sent him to physical therapy. The staff who treated him were kind and helpful, and the prospect of working with athletes made Daniels decide to pursue physical therapy as a career.

Daniels’ mother, a custodian, had taken a few college courses without completing a degree. His older sister will graduate from North Carolina A&T this year. With his mother and sister’s support, a clear career goal and financial aid to help, there was never any doubt in Daniels’ mind that he would go to college, too.

So far, his greatest challenge in the transition is motivating himself to make the grades without the help of a team. As a high school athlete in Ayden, North Carolina, Daniels had plenty of academic accountability. “I had no choice but to do well,” he said. “I had to stay eligible. The independence is different now being away from home. You can’t coast.”

Daniels’ peer mentor, Dr. Ana Rynearson, has been able to point him to study groups and resources like private study rooms. The two were paired as mentor and mentee during orientation, using registration forms that students complete to prioritize which commonalities are important to them. Usually, says Pérez, students emphasize career paths and cultural heritage. The form also asks students to rank aspects of college from most to least stressful — money frequently tops the list.

Listing their concerns individually is a sign of recognition that not every first-generation student has the same needs. The opening reception Pérez hosts each year allows the students to meet one another and get involved in group events. But the only program requirement is that all students meet with their mentor twice per semester. Its open-ended structure is intentional.

“Meeting a mentor can be intimidating, or not what a student expected,” Pérez says. “The one-on-one help they thought they needed is sometimes just not needed anymore. We want our mentors to be okay with the relationship fizzling or flourishing according to the needs of the student.”

With its first cohort graduating, the First Generation Camels program has turned its focus toward generating awareness of the great resource mentorship is to students.

“Not every first-gen student finds this opportunity,” says Pérez. “While we invite all students whose parents do not list bachelor’s degrees, it is not a perfect system. We want to make sure that anyone who wants to take advantage of this resource knows that it is for them.”


Senior Rachel Jones will be the first in her family to earn a traditional four-year degree. Jones knew Campbell as the school where her grandmother got a two-year teaching degree back when Campbell University was Campbell College and a teacher shortage incentivized the school to help those who wanted to join the profession. That connection, along with its proximity to her home in Moncure, helped  her choose Buies Creek.

“My grandmother’s degree here was free, due to the lack of teachers, and if it wasn’t for that opportunity, she never would have gone,” says Jones. “But she also had my dad to take care of — I think he was 2. She balanced it by studying straight through, without summer breaks, so she could finish being a mom and being a student at the same time. I just knew that if she could do that, I could definitely do college.”

Jones first got the college bug when her brother began a college prep program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) in middle school.  Four years behind him in school, Jones followed in his footsteps, interviewing and joining the program as an eighth grader. While her brother didn’t end up going to college, Jones was determined that she would.

AVID helped Jones develop good study habits, apply for scholarships, schedule college visits and prep for ACT and SAT tests from her freshman year until graduation. It worked. In her graduating class, every student in the AVID program continued on to post-secondary education. Nationwide,  first-generation, low-income AVID alumni who go to college are four times more likely to graduate than their peers. In North Carolina, 95 percent of AVID seniors completed entrance requirements out of 21,000 participants.

With her AVID prep, good scholarships and extra help from FAFSA, Jones was confident she could afford college and hold her own in academics. But like many first-generation college students, she struggled to navigate meal plans and roommate scenarios. That’s where First Generation Camels helped the most.

“I basically went straight from one mentoring program that was supposed to prepare me for college into another mentoring program that was helping me navigate college,” said Jones. “That was such a great opportunity, because without it, I probably would have been lost. Neither of my parents knew what was going on. I sure didn’t know what was going on. But now I’ve been in a mentorship relationship  for the last eight years of my life. It’s the best support you could ask for academically and socially.”

Jones’ mentor was Myrah Stockdale, who welcomed  hours-long vent sessions and resume reviews, escape room adventures and field trips to Raleigh. Stockdale not only guided her mentees academically, but helped nurture a friendship between her three mentees that is still strong today.  “It’s just been nice having somebody there and seeing somebody who’s been successful who went through the same things — if not worse — than what I’m going through now, and she made it. Of all the pros of the program, having a mentor has been the best part.”


“Mentorship helped me the most with interviews, resume building and awarness of tutoring services. The engineering department has such a strong academic support system, and it was good to be able to bring my skills as a programmer to that table.” — Joshua Loehmann

At Campbell, the community of mentors for first-gen students is entirely made up of faculty and staff who were first-gen themselves. Mentors commit to mentoring at least one student for one academic year for at least two hours per term. They are dedicated to sharing their own experiences as students and supporting freshmen through graduation. And by providing a framework for what good mentorship looks like, they often end up helping students become good mentors themselves.

When Joshua Loehman graduated from Harnett Central High School in 2012, he knew he wanted to be an engineer. He just didn’t know he would earn a mechanical engineering degree from Campbell. Especially since in 2012, Campbell didn’t have an engineering program.

Loehman took an early interest in math and science and was always fascinated by the way things worked. He knew a degree was the way to go to get involved in the engineering industry, but he was hesitant about the four-year college experience. Cost was a factor, and the idea of dorm life did not excite him. The son of two paralegals who met while getting their associates’ degrees, a two-year program at Wake Tech just made more sense.

First-gen students tend to be less likely to attend a public four-year university (26 percent) or a private college (7 percent), than their peers, 45 percent of whom chose a public four-year institution and 23 percent chose a private college.

Loehman earned two associate degrees in mechanical engineering and in programming, simulation and game development. But a year after graduation, he was still job searching, and he decided the way forward was a bachelor’s degree.

A friend of Loehman’s taught foreign language at Campbell, where the new engineering program was quickly earning awards and accreditations. She encouraged him to apply. He was still worried about requirements to live in dorms and the social stressor of being an older student among recent high school graduates. And his parents, who hadn’t had the traditional undergrad experience, were nervous about the cost.

“When we found out about the scholarship opportunities and how much they can help, everything changed,” said Loehman, who won the Christopher Furtick endowed scholarship on top of his transfer student scholarship, a need-based scholarship and FAFSA aid. “My family was second-guessing the idea, and I definitely had to figure out my options on my own, but when they saw the final amount, they were incredibly supportive.”

Loehman’s parents accompanied him to the 2019 First Generation Camels Welcome Banquet, where they were met by Perez and a host of first-generation mentors there to provide resources and show him the ropes. A self-described introvert balancing a part-time job with his studies, Loehman didn’t always feel the need to lean on First Generation Camels for social activities. But his peer mentor, Dr. Dennis Bazemore, along with an engineering mentor, Dr. Allison Lee, gave him a blueprint that he used in his own mentorship relationships. Loehman served as a peer mentor to a first-year engineering student last year.   

“For me, mentorship helped me most with interviews, resume building, and awareness of tutoring services. The engineering department has such a strong academic support system, and it was good to be able to bring my skills as a programmer to that table.”

One day Loehman hopes to work in auto manufacturing and engineering — the next Elon Musk. Matthews is looking for marketing positions in the banking industry. Jones is waiting for Trust’s annual recruiting events and hoping to see more of the world through her career in finance. Daniels has a few more years in Buies Creek before he gets to help athletes as a physical therapist.

After a long year of restricted gatherings, the 2021-2022 school year offered the First Generation Club a chance at engaging students in person. Pérez is hopeful that in the future, the program will reach every first-generation student on campus with the opportunity to mentor and be mentored.

“I believe that we become what we know,” says Pérez. “And so I want us first-generation students to reassure others, and help them to see their value and that they belong.”