OWU program supports first-generation students


Ohio Wesleyan University is launching a new “Bishop Elevate” office and program to help first-generation college students thrive in their educational careers and persist to graduation.

The Bishop Elevate initiative is being supported with a two-year, $250,000 lead gift from Ohio Wesleyan Trustee Thomas W. Palmer, Class of 1969, and his wife, Susan Palmer, as well as a two-year, $150,000 grant from the Florida-based Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

The Bishop Elevate Program is the foundational component of Ohio Wesleyan’s new Bishop Elevate Office, which is part of the university’s Division of Student Engagement and Success. The office will be overseen by the newly created position of director of First-Generation Student Success. Thea J. Smekens, M.A., has been hired to serve as the director and will begin her work at Ohio Wesleyan on June 1.

Smekens will report to Brad T. Pulcini, Ph.D., dean of Student Services, a first-generation college graduate whose role involves enhancing OWU programs, initiatives, and services to ensure students make successful progress to graduation.

Also a first-generation college graduate, Smekens currently serves as associate director of Residential Communities and Housing at Denison University. She previously worked at Ohio Wesleyan from 2015 to 2018, with her duties including serving as OWU’s First-Year Experience coordinator. In this role, Smekens co-developed and launched OWU’s First-Generation Student Mentor Program to support and retain this group of students. The program was one of the first intentional programs at Ohio Wesleyan to support first-generation student success.

Thanks to the Palmer gift and the Foundations grant, the Bishop Elevate Program will be able to create paid career-oriented internships and research opportunities for at least 20 first-generation students beginning this fall and work to provide the students with the training, confidence, and community they need to thrive in these opportunities.

“At Ohio Wesleyan, first-generation college students comprise 19% of our student body,” Pulcini said. “These students – and all students from underrepresented backgrounds – contribute much to our campus: resilience, creativity, resourcefulness, work ethic, diverse life experiences, and more.

“First-generation students enrich our campus community in many ways, and deepen conversations with new perspectives,” he said. “Ohio Wesleyan is committed to elevating these Bishops – helping them to earn their diplomas and preparing them to succeed in their personal and professional lives. I am excited to welcome Thea back to OWU and to collaborate to realize the potential of our new Bishop Elevate initiatives.”

Thomas and Susan Palmer, of Toledo, Ohio, previously created a $2 million endowment at the university to support the OWU Global Scholars Program. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations have awarded grants totaling more than $300 million to colleges and universities, hospitals, medical schools, and divinity schools since being organized in 1952.

Learn more about the Foundations at www.avdf.org, more about being a first-generation student at Ohio Wesleyan at www.owu.edu/firstgen, and more about enrolling at OWU at www.owu.edu/admission.

Submitted by Ohio Wesleyan University.

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