New program supports first-gen students

Dr. Martha Sales is the executive Director of WKU’s Intercultural Student Engagement Center (ISEC). The Mission of ISEC is to assist the university with recruitment, retention and graduation of underrepresented WKU students, according to their website.

Rebekah Alvey

When Martha Sales was a first-generation Pell Grant-eligible student-of-color at WKU, she was supported by mentors, advisors and role models. These tools led her to get four degrees from WKU and become the executive director of TRiO Programs and the Intercultural Student Engagement Center at WKU.

Through a new program, Sales is now providing the same opportunities and tools to a select group of first-year students.

The Intercultural Student Engagement Center, or ISEC, is a first-year experience program that guides students of color, first-generation students and Pell Grant-eligible students towards graduation. Through the program, students are immersed in a living-and-learning community.

By surrounding students with resources and a community, Sales said students get a sense of belonging.

“We want them to see themselves as an alum,” Sales said. “You can only be an alum if you graduate.”

Sales said the criteria includes not just students of color, but students who may encounter a wide variety of issues that may prevent them from graduating. Students enrolled in the program are referred to as “scholars,” Sales said.

“A scholar is someone who is able to learn and communicate,” Sales said.

While the program focuses on freshman year, Sales said the students will be assisted in different ways throughout their four-year college experience.

The first year focuses on getting students involved and adjusted; sophomore year introduces leadership and study abroad opportunities, and junior year focuses on connecting students to their career. By senior year, advisers are working on doing anything else needed to help the scholar graduate, Sales said.

Currently, 72 students are involved in ISEC, with about 60 of them living in Douglas Keene Hall. These students also attend at least one class together and are provided with a peer navigator, someone to guide them through their first year at WKU.

While there are several other living and learning communities at WKU, such as the Honors College, ISEC and the students it includes is unique. Sales said she and the program have already heard many questions from students and other universities, which is an attraction for WKU.

Students moved in for orientation the weekend before M.A.S.T.E.R Plan so they could familiarize themselves with their group and the campus itself. Already, Sales said she sees ISEC students sticking together and being active in classrooms.

Louisville freshman Dashawn Adams, a first-generation student-of-color, is a scholar in the ISEC Academy. He said it has already been useful to him. He said it’s important to know he has people to support and guide him through his first year.

Adams said he is looking for acceptance into the nursing program, which he said is extremely competitive. Already after his first day of classes, he was studying in the ISEC offices and has a group chat of people in his grade and upperclassmen to study with.

“I know people,” Adams said. “Which is important for fitting in.”

To immediately create a sense of belonging, students were taught the fight song and importance of WKU tradition at orientation. They also met Big Red and President Timothy C. Caboni.

Sales said Caboni has been supportive throughout the process in both actions and words, even though the program was created before his arrival. Sales referred to his convocation speech, where he addressed diversity on campus.

Sales said the ISEC Academy has already created a sense of belonging for the scholars involved.

“We want students of color to feel like they belong at WKU,” Sales said.

Reporter Rebekah Alvey can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].