photo of first-generation college student Imani Belton, winner of the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award at Winthrop University

Winthrop University Honored as a Top School for First-Generation College Students

Sullivan Foundation partner Winthrop University has been honored for its efforts to create positive and productive experiences for first-generation college students.

The Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and The Suder Foundation, have designated Winthrop University as one of its 2021-22 First-gen Forward Institutions.

The First-gen Forward designation recognizes institutions of higher education that have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes of first-generation students. Selected institutions receive professional development, community-building experiences and a first look at the center’s research and resources.

Related: Winthrop University’s Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner overcame racism, poverty to earn graduate fellowship from National Science Foundation

“As a first-generation college graduate, I am keenly aware of the challenges associated with navigating higher education: the use of unfamiliar terminology, the assumption that one knows how to ‘do’ college, or that one even knows what questions to ask,” said Shelia Burkhalter, Winthrop’s vice president for student affairs.

“Student Affairs is excited to work with TRiO Student Support Services, the McNair Scholars program and the rest of the Winthrop community to think more strategically about serving first-gen students at Winthrop,” she continued. “While we look forward to advancing the success of first-generation students, the student success literature confirms that efforts to advance first-generation students will ultimately benefit all students on campus.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 33 percent of higher education students today are the first in their family to attend college. Winthrop mirrors the national statistic, Burkhalter said, noting that approximately one-third of Winthrop students identify as first-generation, when defined as a student whose parent(s)/legal guardian(s) have not completed a bachelor’s degree.

That population includes Imani Belton, an integrated marketing communication major and chair of the Council of Student Leaders (CSL), Winthrop’s student government body.

Related: Winthrop University to collaborate on Miracle Park for people of all abilities

“Throughout my time at Winthrop, I’ve been able to connect with first-generation faculty, staff and students, which has made my collegiate experience 10 times better because of bonds we’ve created,” she said. “Being a first-generation student is a point of pride for me and other Winthrop students who have benefited from learning on a campus that provides outreach and services for students like us.”

Winthrop has already made significant strides in first-generation student support and outcomes:

The TRiO Student Support Services Program has supported first-generation students for more than 15 years, providing students with a variety of services such as personalized academic counseling, tutoring, individualized needs assessment and more.

Since 2009, the McNair Scholars program has prepared first-generation, low-income and underrepresented undergraduates to be successful in Ph.D. programs through research, extensive support and transformational opportunities throughout the junior and senior years.

Within the Division of Student Affairs, the Office of the Vice President as well as the Diversity and Student Engagement office facilitate events to celebrate first-generation students and graduates (for example, among the faculty and staff) and to raise awareness regarding issues impacting first-generation student success.

“Through the application process, it was evident that Winthrop University is not only taking steps to serve first-generation students but is prepared to make a long-term commitment and employ strategies for significant scaling and important advances in the future,” said Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-generation Student Success.

To learn more about first-generation efforts at Winthrop, contact Burkhalter at or Kinyata Adams Brown at

Related: Winthrop University breaks record for freshman applications

About NASPA and the Center for First-gen Student Success
NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education—is the leading association for the advancement, health and sustainability of the student affairs profession. Its work provides high-quality professional development, advocacy and research for 15,000 members in all 50 states, 25 countries and eight U.S. territories. The Center for First-generation Student Success is the premier source of evidence-based practices, professional development and knowledge creation for the higher education community to advance the success of first-generation students. Visit and for more information.

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Winthrop University website.

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