Thanks to a recent grant from the Booth Ferris Foundation, Hobart and William Smith Colleges are proud to offer support and programming to roughly 15 percent of HWS undergraduates who are the first in their families to attend a four-year college or university. Directed by Associate Professor Christine de Denus, the First Generation Initiative (FGI) will develop, expand and sustain a set of activities designed to ensure that first-generation students are well-prepared to engage fully in all aspects of campus life at the Colleges.
As both national studies and anecdotal evidence from the HWS community indicate a need for such programming, the FGI will ensure that first-generation students have academic, social and co-curricular guidance; have visibility as a group on campus; graduate; and take advantage of the resources and opportunities that HWS offers, both during and after their undergraduate years.
“We’re looking forward to having a visible community of first-generation students, faculty and staff that can talk about what it means to be first-generation,” says de Denus. “There are lots of myths and stereotypes about what that means, so it’s important that we’re committed to and supportive of first-generation students.”
“I noticed a trend among first-years who were struggling,” says William Smith Associate Dean Lisa Kaenzig, a strong supporter of the program. “I’m not first-generation myself but as I looked at this pattern in a wide range of bright, talented students who nevertheless felt overwhelmed, it became clear that there are gaps of knowledge and a need to fill them.”
Now, thanks to the Booth Ferris grant, “we have the ability to dedicate time and resources to this,” says de Denus, who was part of that initial committee and is herself a first-generation college graduate. “It’s very exciting.”
Kaenzig agrees: “I couldn’t be happier about this grant. It will bring resources as well as institutional commitment, and I can’t think of anyone better to run it.”
Over the course of two years, grant funding will enable first-generation recruitment materials for the Office of Admissions and pre-orientation engagement with incoming first-generation students. The grant will fund data collection about student experiences; a publicity campaign about first-generation opportunities; and programming for HWS Family Weekend, other campus-wide gatherings and events like an ongoing speaker series.
Kelly Craig ’16, who laid the groundwork for what has become the FGI, will return to campus next semester to discuss her experience as a first-generation student.
“So many people are reluctant to embrace their first-generation status or unaware that they fall within the category that it could be hard to get in touch with them,” says Craig. “With this new grant, I hope to see the term ‘first generation’ being used on campus with more frequency, comfort and pride. As a student it was very powerful for me to hear the experiences of other first-generation students, so I hope to share my experiences in a way that helps others.”
Additionally, the Colleges will apply to join the I’m First organization, an online community founded by Center for Student Opportunity (now Strive for College) to offer first-generation students and those who advise them inspiration, information and support on the road to and through college.
Finally, the Booth Ferris grant puts HWS in a position to share the results of the FGI project with the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium and other institutions, through collaborations and conference participation.
These approaches, as well as the data collection and visibility campaign undertaken by the FGI student workers, are designed, de Denus says, “to give the students a sense of pride” and “change the culture surrounding first-generation students’ college experience.”