First-generation students find support, success from NSU TRIO programs

Female student smiling on NSU campus

ABERDEEN, S.D. – Rosa Paw’s parents didn’t have access to education back in their home country of Thailand, so Paw really wanted to get her degree and make them proud.

“I always wanted to go to college,” said Paw, now of Aberdeen. “But to be honest, it was not easy finding information about college.”

Then, she joined Northern State University’s TRIO Upward Bound. Thanks to that program, which supports first-generation and low-income high school students, Paw is now a freshman elementary education major at Northern.

Like Paw, 38 percent of Northern students are first-generation, meaning their parents or guardians did not complete a college degree, and they often face unique challenges.

“Higher education generally is a complex process, so it can be difficult to navigate for all students,” said Laci Hettick, director of Northern’s other TRIO program, Student Support Services. “First-generation college students have an added barrier of maybe not having a role model readily available to help guide them through that process.”

Northern offers several benefits that might make it stand out to first-generation students, including a community atmosphere, small classes and professors who get to know you. But the added benefit, Hettick said, is that Northern’s TRIO Student Support Services specializes in assisting first-generation students, as well as income-qualifying students and students with disabilities.

TRIO has Made Positive Impact

Currently, NSU TRIO SSS serves 140 first-generation college students, including Paw.

“TRIO SSS has made a positive impact on my educational experience by giving me different opportunities,” said Paw, who is part of the TRIO Scholar Association. “Not only has it made my college experience better, TRIO also has led me to the right path of my career as it progresses. Not to mention, the professors are wonderful people and don’t hesitate to ask questions.”

While TRIO SSS provides academic support including advising and tutoring, the program offers social support as well, including events such as service learning opportunities and community speakers.

“We really try to create this holistic experience for students and build this community of support for them,” Hettick said.

Peer Mentors Make a Difference

One part of the program that makes a big impact is peer mentoring, Hettick said. This can be especially important for first-generation students because peer mentors come from a similar background as their own. Additionally, the students can choose to live alongside those peer mentors in a living learning community on the first floor of Great Plains East.

That kind of connection can make all the difference.

“The college system is so complicated,” Hettick said. “There are so many resources available, but when you’re already overwhelmed, instead of having one certain office, you can always literally step outside your room in a residence hall and a peer mentor can help you.”

Advice for First-Generation Students

For other first-generation students, Paw recommends getting to know the staff and the faculty.

“Don’t be nervous about college because once you get to know people, they are very welcoming,” she said, adding, “If you have the opportunity, join TRIO!”

To learn more, visit TRIO Student Support Services online or email

About Northern State University

Northern State University is a regional university that offers outstanding academics and exceptional extracurricular activities at an affordable price on a safe, welcoming campus. Northern State recently announced its Educational Impact Campaign, with a goal of raising $55 million for a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, new athletic and recreation fields, and an on-campus regional sports complex. Once the campaign is complete, NSU will be the recipient of more than $100 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions.