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Access Week at Rutgers raises awareness, provides support to first-generation students

 The main speaker on Wednesday's "James Dickson Carr Lecture" series, named in honor of the first African-American graduate of Rutgers, is Laura Coates, a CNN Legal Analyst. At the event, she will speak about civil rights and activism in a public lecture.  – Photo by Twitter

Today kickstarts the sixth annual Access Week, an event to engage the University around first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students through various programs, workshops and talks.

Jesmarie Minaya, the senior program coordinator of Student Access and Educational Equity (SAEE), said the purpose of the event is to bring attention to ways Rutgers could support these students, which represents approximately 30 percent of the most recent first-year class. 

“One of our biggest goals for Access Week is to help the Rutgers community understand that supporting first-generation students should be important to everyone,” she said. 

Access Week includes a range of events to raise visibility of issues facing first-generation students. Today’s event is "I AM COLLEGEBOUND: College Fair & Youth Summit" in which Rutgers students help high school students prepare for college through workshops, speakers and trainings. Tuesday will be the "RU1st Forum," in which a panel of national experts will speak to undergraduates about ways to improve first-generation student retention and graduation rates.

Wednesday will mark the "James Dickson Carr Lecture Series," which is also part of the Paul Robeson centennial celebration series, Minaya said. At the event, CNN legal analyst Laura Coates will speak in a public lecture about the importance of knowing and advocating for one’s civil rights and understanding the integrity of activism.

On Thursday, SAEE will host the "Graduate School Preparation Summit" to share advice for how to succeed during the graduate school application process.

The program will end with the "Read to the Youth" literacy campaign on Friday, which is where SAEE students will give back to the community by visiting Plainfield Public Schools to read to children in the classroom, Minaya said.

“This event allows for current college students to inspire a new group of students to attend Rutgers and further their education,” she said.

One of the speakers during Access Week is Zakiya Smith Ellis, who currently serves as New Jersey's Secretary of Higher Education. While her undergraduate degree was in secondary education, she decided to switch to management and policy because there were parts of the classroom that were out of a teacher’s control. 

She said after high school, there were far fewer lower-income, first-generation students of color that went straight to college. Although New Jersey has a higher amount of people with college degrees than other states, there is still a sizable gap between the rates for different ethnicities. 

“Close to 50 percent of white people have a college degree, less than a third of African Americans have one and approximately 25 percent of Hispanics have a college degree,” Smith said.

Once these students get to college, Smith said the completion rate is also lower for minority students than white students. The four-year graduation rate is 50 percent for Black students, 56 percent for Hispanic students and 68 percent for Asian students. In comparison, the rate for white students is the highest at 72 percent. 

She said that Access Week and other opportunities, such as Rutgers' Education Opportunity Fund (EOF), were great models for the state, since it highlighted the needs of first-generation students.

“People turn to New Jersey and look at (its) EOF program … it’s the crème de la crème of student support,” Smith said.

What Rutgers can continue to do to support these students is increase affordability, she said. Through scholarships, initiatives and providing ways to afford room and board, supplies and other hidden costs for attending college, increased affordability would help students know where to go and not worry about how their term bills would be paid.

Overall, Minaya said Access Week is important because first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students face barriers to higher education and need support.

“A series like Access Week communicates Rutgers’ commitment to diversity and inclusion, and serves as a national model of innovation in supporting underserved students,” Minaya said. 

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