Before attending college as a non-traditional, first-generation student, Matthew Sullivan experienced homelessness, worked in a variety of low-paying jobs, and did not see academia as part of his future. The harshness of life without a degree was part of why he decided that going back to school was his only option. At 25, he started his academic journey, and years later, as a graduate student at U-M, Sullivan found his calling.
From experience, Sullivan knew that first-gen college students needed to be better served. He believed that first-gens were some of the university’s most important community members and had immeasurable potential for leadership.
In 2016, while still a Ph.D. candidate, Sullivan and another doctoral student in sociology, Shauna Dyer, worked with Sandra R. Levitsky, a professor in the department who had been advocating for a new first-gen support program. As a result, the Sociology Opportunities for Undergraduate Leadership (SOUL) program was born and Sullivan became its director.
It is the first departmental-level program at U-M that is specifically geared toward supporting first-generation college students. With a zero percent attrition rate, SOUL is one of the most successful academic support programs in the country.
“Part of our work is to get first-gen students to dream,” says Sullivan. “Part of our work in the program is to get them to feel comfortable having higher expectations, and having higher aspirations, not just being in the survival mode, but what I call the flourishing mode.”
Although Sullivan is now the director of the SOUL program, his background helps him understand students whose paths might not be typical. When Sullivan graduated from high school, he tried a semester of community college, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life and was uninspired. In hopes of something better, Sullivan signed up for a work-abroad program in England. He became a bartender but ended up homeless and returned to the States. Sullivan had a series of labor jobs that followed, wound up homeless again, and ultimately took a position as a handyman before heading north to Alaska to try commercial fishing.
“The waters were overfished,” says Sullivan. “After working for four months and putting in 16-hour days, I left with $2,500.” Sullivan’s early adulthood experiences led to an uncle telling him that he might do better in school, which prompted Sullivan to apply for readmission to community college. He decided to go back to college at 25—first Sacramento City College and then University of California, Berkeley.
“A lot of times, first-gens on campus think that they are the only ones experiencing what they are experiencing,” says Sullivan. He explains that while first-gen students make up about 10 percent of the student populace, they can often feel like they are alone. “I certainly felt that way,” he says.
In addition to a two-credit sociology course uniquely tailored to SOUL students’ needs, the program provides a position as a research assistant with a faculty member or organizational partner, paid attendance at the U-M Barger Leadership Institute’s seven-week leadership lab, access to the leadership institute’s alumni network, access to summer funding and internship opportunities, a peer mentor, and up to two hours of tutoring per week.
“I’m very involved in students’ lives; I know their professors and check in with them,” says Sullivan, who views SOUL as holistic in scope. “It’s a year-long program that is divided into two parts. The first semester is all about academic success and having the first-gen college identity. And the second part is more geared toward professional success and preparation for what comes after college.”
Alejandra Gallegos-Ordaz, a former SOUL participant, received her B.A. in sociology in 2022. She credits SOUL with helping her graduate. “It meant a lot to be a part of a community of people who I could relate to and learn from,” says Gallegos-Ordaz. “Matt knew I was thinking about leaving U-M due to the obstacles I faced, but he encouraged and challenged me to stay.”
SOUL provides first-gen students with what feels like a place of their own. Sullivan says that community is integral to student success and connects that to professionalization.
Alanna Grace-Marie Schwartz transferred to U-M in 2022 from Henry Ford College. She is majoring in sociology and minoring in Afroamerican and African studies. “I do not know what I would do without SOUL,” she says. “It has been extremely difficult to attend a university as a low-income, Black, queer woman with no support from family or other sources. The SOUL program is a safe haven for me.”
Angel Li, a student in sociology and social work, agrees. “I learned how to develop my professional identity, from creating a LinkedIn account to talking with first-gen alumni. Matt puts in the effort to get to know all his students and continues to support me even after the program.”
Sullivan was recently nominated for an LSA Individual Award for Outstanding Contributions, and his students are largely why. Sullivan’s work is having a direct impact, and SOUL is inspiring other LSA departments to start looking at providing the same kinds of resources to their students.
“I would still love for SOUL to either expand into other departments, or for an LSA-wide first-gen program to emerge,” says Sullivan.
It’s Sullivan’s work with students directly, though, that might be most inspiring. “I’ve lived a lot of different lives,” says Sullivan. “I think I bring a varied perspective to my work, and students see that.”
When asked what he is most proud of, Sullivan doesn’t hesitate: “The thing that makes me the absolute happiest is when a student contacts me two or three years after graduating, and they say that they didn’t understand how valuable it was at the time, but that they still think about what they learned.”
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