First-generation college students drive growth at Southwest Minnesota State

students in the classroom
Cedric Williams checks in on Mustang Pathway Program students. This is an alternate free five-week entry program that allows those who were initially denied admission into Southwest Minnesota State University another chance at enrollment.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Affording college felt like a constant worry for Peda Zeba. Growing up in tiny Adrian, Minn., the child of immigrant parents from Burkina Faso, Zeba had the drive to pursue a degree. Paying for it, however, would be a challenge.

But here he stood, on campus at Southwest Minnesota State University as an incoming freshman, spending three weeks in the university’s intensive Summer Bridge program with a chance to earn eight college credits for free. 

Southwest waived the summer room and board costs and the tuition charge for those credits, giving Zeba and others a jump-start on their degrees. It’s part of the university’s successful efforts to draw in first-generation college students, who are now fueling its growth.

“A lot of people, the first generation, think they’re not going to be able to do it — ‘If my parents didn’t do it, how am I going to do that?’ It’s always like, all these things bringing them down,” he said. “I’m glad that they waived the eight credits, because then that brings more people in and shows … you may think you may not have the money for it, but we’ll support you and help you get to that point.”

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Two person looks on
Peda Zeba of Adrian, Minn. participates in an activity during the Summer Bridge Program at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Like colleges across the United States, Southwest Minnesota State saw its student counts slide in the decade following the 2008-09 Great Recession. The school responded by strengthening ties to local K-12 schools and embracing the region’s growing racial and ethnic diversity. 

The result: an enrollment upswing fueled largely by the children of first-generation immigrants that’s made Southwest Minnesota State one of the few four-year public universities in Minnesota where student numbers are rising.

“Early on our team recognized these are going to be our students in the future, so we changed our vision statement to say SMSU is to be the most inclusive and student-centered university in Minnesota and beyond,” said Kumara Jayasuriya, who took over as the university’s president in July 2019. “We want to create an environment where everyone one of our students feel they belong.” 

Roughly 1 in 5 Southwest Minnesota State University students identified as students of color or Indigenous in 2022, a population that’s grown about 18 percent over the last five years. 

First-generation college students make up half the student body now. More than one-third are considered low-income or federal Pell Grant recipients.

Those demographics reflect the small rural towns across southwestern Minnesota where large employers draw in a diverse workforce. Families put down roots and helped revitalize communities, schools and businesses.

Finding students wasn’t a problem for Southwest or other campuses in the years during and just after the Great Recession. People who lost jobs in the bad economy returned to colleges to retrain and rethink their futures. 

Eventually, though, the student tide ebbed as the economy improved. Southwest went from 2,635 degree-seeking undergraduates in 2012 to 1,914 in 2019, a 27-percent drop. 

A person poses for a portrait
Michele Knife Sterner is the associate director of the Access Opportunity Success (AOS) program at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

University leaders knew reversing the decline was crucial to Southwest’s long-term viability. Embracing the Minnesota State college and university system’s effort to eliminate educational equity gaps by 2030, the school committed to programs and services to help students develop the academic skills needed to succeed in college.

Under the banner Access Opportunity Success, Southwest leaders built several programs including Summer Bridge and the Mustang Pathway, a free five-week summer entry program for students who didn’t meet initial admission requirements but can still be enrolled if they successfully complete the program.

Meeting students where they’re at and understanding that not everyone has the same access to college prep courses or tutors is key, said Michele Knife Sterner, associate director of Access Opportunity Success, adding that some of the university’s most successful students began in programs like Mustang Pathway and Summer Bridge.

“I think there’s a lot to be learned from that, because there are students that will succeed, even if they don’t necessarily have [the] ACT or GPA requirement,” Sterner said. “I believe that the two programs allow for students to be able to grow and gain responsibility and how they want to be.”

That’s how Cedric Williams felt. He was part of Summer Bridge and is now a mentor and a first-year graduate assistant at Southwest, mentoring new students in Mustang Pathway and Summer Bridge. 

“I mean, it gave me hope, and that was one thing that I didn’t have coming in,” Williams said. “It might have been times where I thought down on myself, but Summer Bridge truly lifted me up and told me that I could do it with how rigorous the courses are … that’s just one thing that makes you know that everybody needs a second chance.”

A student hold crayon
Students in Southwest Minnesota State University's Summer Bridge Program pass around some markers for an activity.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

‘Keep the doors open for anyone’

Southwest Minnesota State leaders have worked with local cities and schools to build a pipeline to the university, tying into the region’s work to meet the needs of a rapidly shifting population of new immigrants and people of color.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” said Erin Kline, associate director of equity and inclusion at Southwest Minnesota State who’s also part of the city of Marshall’s commission on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“There’s not necessarily like one particular thing but many things that intersect to really kind of weave a blanket that we wrap around our students to help them continue and persist to graduation is very intentional in what we do,” Kline said.

Faculty members have propelled that idea in different ways.

Director of Bands John Ginocchio said he prioritizes his student bands performing at smaller school districts, ones bigger universities might ignore, and creating some of their first interactions with the college. 

“When I take my bands out on tour, we don’t try to go to Eden Prairie. We don’t try to go to Coon Rapids or Elk River or these large suburbs. I take them out to Ashby, Minnesota, I take them to Hancock, Minnesota, I take them to Heron Lake,” Ginocchio said. 

“We do lots of outreach, going out to schools, creating opportunities for potential students to come here. But not only that, we keep the doors open for anyone.”

Opening education and resources to the region and beyond is important, said Maria Kingsbury, president of Southwest Minnesota State’s faculty association. For those who didn’t have access before, widening it is critical to the health of the communities the college serves, she said.

Students stand in the classroom
Cedric Williams, a graduate assistant at Southwest Minnesota State University, helps lead an activity during the Summer Bridge Program.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

“I think education, at least for me, really changed my trajectory, changed my life,” Kingsbury said. “And being able to give a little piece of that to somebody else feels like it’s really fulfilling. I think all of us love to see these students going back into their communities, and being teachers, and being therapists and being doctors and reinvigorating this rural area we live in … like that’s just cool.”

Overall, the efforts appear to have stopped the decline in Southwest Minnesota State’s enrollment and led to an uptick. After bottoming out in 2019, the number of degree-seeking undergraduates came in at 1,947 last year. 

This fall, Southwest welcomed 368 new first-year students to campus, an increase of 10.8 percent since Fall 2022. The university is serving 2,531 degree-seeking students, up 5.2 percent from last year and saw growth in almost all demographics.

Degree-seeking undergraduates are up 4.2 percent to 2,039 students. A total of 429 graduate degree-seeking students is an increase of 11.4 percent from Fall 2022.

A 2 percent increase in undergraduate student retention also contributed to enrollment growth. The full-year equivalent enrollment grew more than 6 percent from the past year. 

Southwest is one of the few four-year institutions to show an overall increase this fall as enrollment in colleges and universities dips across the state and the nation.

It’s a small change but one that offers hope going forward, and hope is an important currency to the students who’ve benefited from the university’s outreach.

A person poses for a portrait
Meghan Olsem came from rural Jackson, Minn. She's a first-generation college student.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Freshman Meghan Olsem, a first-generation college student from Jackson Central High School in rural Jackson, Minn., said it was her high school counselor who encouraged her and helped her navigate the enrollment process at Southwest Minnesota State.

“I went into her office, like, pretty much every day just to talk to her,” said Olsem, who finished the university’s Mustang Pathway program. “I mean, those kinds of relationships are the best. And if it wasn't for her, I don't think I'd be here.”

Olsem dreams of becoming a child life specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, tying into her own experiences of undergoing surgeries at the health system. Going to Southwest meant those dreams and getting a degree were possible, and there’s something else motivating her too. 

“What really inspires me to go to college is probably knowing that my little brother wants to go to college too,” she said. “And if I can do it, he can definitely do it.”

Markus Macon thought about attending college before but his grades weren’t the best. The freshman wasn’t sure what direction he was going to go. However, the California native heard about the Mustang Pathway program and decided to take a leap of faith in southwestern Minnesota.

“I left a lot of problems back home, and there was a lot of distractions. Coming out here, the MPP really helped me,” said Macon, adding that he’s settled into life in Marshall. “It’s truly a blessing. Coming out here really saved my life.”

Macon wants to bring that hope back to his friends in California and see if they’ll join him on campus. 

“I plan on helping other students that graduated from high school from where I came from, hopefully get them out here and let them see the light on this side, and let them know that there is a way,” he said. “Let them know that there is a way and you could come out here, join the program and really get your life started.”