Student Group


What is SD-FIRST?

The SD-FIRST program at South Dakota Mines supports first-generation students, creating an environment where they will find success.     

As the first in their families to attend college and complete a college degree, first-generation students and their support system can lack firsthand experience navigating the higher education world. While other students can call home for advice from parents who have university experience, for first-generation students whose family members have no or limited experience with the process, higher education hurdles can seem insurmountable. The SD-FIRST program fills that void.  

Nationally, 20 percent of university undergraduates are first-generation. At South Dakota Mines, one-third of incoming freshmen are first-generation students.

Our SD-FIRST program provides evidence-based resiliency support in academic, social, and economic areas with the goal of helping first-generation students find success, and ultimately graduate with a degree from South Dakota Mines. The program is designed to give students the tools to better understand and navigate a college culture and encourage higher levels of emotional intelligence in students, which results in greater involvement in campus life, higher retention and graduation rates, and more first-generation students entering the STEM fields.

Impact of SD-FIRST 

The SD-FIRST program provides a robust support system that awards scholarships to students and connects them with other financial-aid opportunities to help alleviate financial burden and help scholars to remain focused on academics. The program also provides academic and social support to first-generation students, by raising awareness of important campus resources, helping them negotiate faculty/staff interactions, sharing opportunities for involvement in clubs and teams, providing a personal connection for overall support, and much more. Through SD-FIRST, students will persist and achieve the ultimate goal of a college degree.

SD-FIRST Specifics

SD-FIRST Program Overview Figure

The SD-FIRST program is hinged on 7 elements working together to help first-generation students succeed:

  1. Recruiting – recruit promising first-generation students in STEM fields
  2. Rewarding – provide assistance through program scholarships to reduce financial burden
  3. Readying – training faculty and student mentors to create a robust mentoring program
  4. Retaining – connect existing academic campus resources
  5. Reinforcing – create support network of students, faculty, and staff
  6. Reviewing – internal and external program evaluation
  7. Reinvesting – outreach to local schools, foundation support for program continuation

Who is Eligible to Apply?

Students who meet the following requirements are eligible for S-STEM scholarships:

  1. Be enrolled as a half-time (or more) student at South Dakota Mines in an engineering or science discipline.
  2. Be in good academic standing, specifically, one of:
    • Meet the entrance requirements as either a beginning student (freshmen) or transfer student to South Dakota, including GPA and ACT scores.
    • Maintain a cumulative GPA of at least 2.5 out of 4.0.
  3. Hold United States citizenship or permanent resident status.
  4. Demonstrate financial need as defined by the US Department of Education rules for need-based financial aid and the South Dakota Mines Office of Financial Aid implementation of the rules.

Contact us

Dr. Cassandra Birrenkott
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering
SD-FIRST Program Director
Phone: 605-394-2496

Dr. Jon Kellar
Professor/Douglas Fuerstenau Professor/Nucor Professor of Materials/Metallurgical Engineering
SD-FIRST Program Co-Director
Phone: 605-394-2343

Dr. Michael West
Department Head / Associate Professor of Materials/Metallurgical Engineering
SD-FIRST Program Co-Director
Phone: 605-394-1283

Ms. Lisa Carlson
Student Success Center Director
SD-FIRST Program Co-Director
Phone: 605-394-526

Ms. Molly Moore
Associate Provost for Academic Administration
SD-FIRST Program Admissions Liaison
Phone: 605-394-5236

Mr. Jesse Herrera
Director of Inclusion
SD-FIRST Program Internal Evaluator
Phone: 605-394-1828

Ms. Sharon Chontos
Sage Project Consultants
SD-FIRST Program External Evaluator

Long term sustainability/Donate


Interested in more information or helping to ensure the continued success of first-generation students at South Dakota Mines? Here are two ways that you can help:

  • The SD-FIRST program is looking for external mentors for our students - contact us if you think you’d be a good fit!
  • The SD-FIRST program is funded by the National Science Foundation through 2025, but is seeking donors with a passion for the success of first-generation students to help this program sustainability.