Fairmont State University announces Datha and Gene Smith Fellows

Twenty students from West Virginia high schools have been selected to participate in this year’s Datha and Gene Smith Fellowship program.  The exclusive fellowship program was developed to assist first-generation college students with their transition from high school to college. Unlike scholarships, fellowships provide long-term support, rather than one-time financial disbursement.  

This cohort of 20 students is Fairmont State’s largest yet.  

First-generation students are the first in their immediate family to attend college. This can present a variety of challenges such as a lack of college knowledge, financial difficulties, difficulty assimilating into college, and a lack of support. Knowing some of these struggles as first-generation college graduates themselves Datha and Gene Smith, a couple from Marion County, established the program. 

To begin the process of college life, selected students will attend a summer bridge program. For five days in July, members of the cohort will live on Fairmont State’s campus and experience life as college students. This program eases the anxiety of the transition from high school to college through casual gatherings, complete tours of the campus, and ongoing assistance from advisors who are there to answer any questions. This year’s bridge program is set to run from July 6 through 11.  

“Our bridge program allows first-generation college students to obtain the information they need to be successful during their time at Fairmont State University,” said Justin Rader, Associate Director of Orientation and Transition Programs at Fairmont State. 

“We craft an agenda that doesn’t just outline tasks but paves a path to success,” Rader said. “From campus tours and writing workshops to team building and career exploration, everything we offer during the bridge program is designed to guide students toward a brighter and more inclusive future.” 

Although college enrollment has declined for many institutions across the United States, a college degree still holds a lot of value. Those who possess degrees have increased job opportunities and earn much more than they would with just a high school diploma. 

There is a significant income gap between those who have a college degree and those who do not. According to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, college graduates still in their 20s can expect to earn on average $20,000 more per year than high school graduates.  

Since finances are a main obstacle for many first-generation college students, Fairmont State aims to close that gap by providing each fellow with financial assistance and ongoing support throughout the student’s four years. Since 2012, nearly 40 percent of Fairmont State’s graduates have been first-generation students. Currently, 43 percent of freshmen are first-generation students.  

One of Fairmont State’s core values is being a great place for everyone to learn. This means considering the obstacles students from all backgrounds face and connecting them with the tools and resources they need to graduate and thrive. 

“Being accepted into this program as a first-generation college student is an honor,” said Abby Russell, a student from Craigsville, W.VA who was selected for the 2024 fellowship. “I’m excited to explore the campus and get a feel of what college will be like.” 

Organizers of the fellowship program share in the excitement. “Each new cohort of Datha and Gene Smith fellows ignites a spark of excitement, embodying the promise of boundless possibilities,” Rader said. “Welcoming them into our Datha and Gene Smith Fellowship & Summer Bridge Program is not just a gesture but a profound commitment to nurturing dreams, breaking barriers and shaping futures.”  

Zoe Adams, another of this year’s fellows from Bridgeport, W.VA said, “Being accepted into the Datha and Gene program is so exciting. It gives me a sense of relief to know Fairmont State University has my back as a first-generation college student.” 

This year’s fellows are from counties across West Virginia, including Brooke, Harrison, Marion, Nicholas, Wyoming, Preston, Taylor and Tyler counties.  

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