By Dr. Ben Sells

President, Ouachita Baptist Univeristy

Investing in a new trajectory for families

By Dr. Ben Sells

President, Ouachita Baptist Univeristy

Who was the first one to attend college in your family? Maybe it was you. Did you realize you were starting a tradition that others would follow? Or, maybe like me, you benefited from a family member who helped pave the way for you. 

The first to attend college is often the catalyst that changes a family’s future. The circle of opportunity widens a bit more every time the first in the family graduates from college. Each represents an increment of educational, spiritual and economic growth.  

Ouachita has been and continues to be a place of opportunity for these students. In fact, at least 20% of Ouachita students are the first in their family to attend college. 

A few days before this academic year began, my wife, Lisa, and I hosted a dinner for new students who are the first in their family to attend college. They’re part of one of our largest freshman classes ever. Lisa and I could see the hope in their eyes, the promise in their abilities and the potential in their energy. We saw our family story and the story of so many of us in them.  

My great, great grandfather Hatcher worked in the mines of southern Illinois. It was a dark and dangerous existence. He sought to cope by turning to alcohol, which only made his life, and that of his family, even darker. Then one day, the Holy Spirit, through the ministry of a local Baptist church, came into and radically changed his life and the trajectory of my family. 

In searching for a better life, the Hatcher and Sells families found their way to the St. Louis area, found one another, and my father was born. Because of a scholarship, he became the first one in his family to go to college. Eventually he would become a Baptist college president in southwest Missouri. In nearby northeast Oklahoma, Lisa became the first in her family to attend college. 

I’m reminded that for every first-generation college student, in God’s providence, there are many people and events that make it possible for them to attend college. And that choice, more often than not, steepens the trajectory of all who follow them.  

Some first-generation students are very academically motivated, both God-given and nurtured by others. Others find academic work challenging, often because they have no one at home to turn to. Yet, they’re drawn to college – to Ouachita. They accurately sense this is a place of opportunity, where faculty and staff want to know them by name and walk alongside them. Many don’t know how to navigate a college campus and system and have greater financial need. The pandemic only compounded their challenges. 

For all these reasons, we launched a new program we call Mind of a Tiger. Ouachita invested in bringing first-generation students to campus five days early to give them a head start, meet faculty and staff, identify the resources to help them and learn their way around campus. This was just the beginning of the extra support Ouachita seeks to provide these students throughout their college journey. 

In May, I had the privilege of handing a diploma to Stephany Quintero – a first generation college student. She earned top academic honors and was active on campus. She had a supportive family and university. And, she made the most of it. A leader in our ROTC, she’s among a handful in the nation that the military is sending directly to law school this fall.  

Classes have begun for our 136th year, and we have considerable institutional momentum. While the momentum is gratifying, the essence of Ouachita is a student with a name and a story. Arkansas Baptists, through your generous support, you are investing in first-generation students, too. 

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