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Conference unites first gens to discuss college experience

1vyG offers collective reflection on ways to enhance college life for first-gen students

Two hundred fifty first-generation college students and 50 university administrators arrived on College Hill Friday for the first 1vyG Conference. The co-founders of 1vyG — a student group working to improve the college experience for first-generation students — shaped the weekend-long symposium around four guiding themes: “understanding, agency, pride and action,” the event’s organizers said.

Co-founding team Stanley Stewart ’16, Jessica Brown ’16 and Manuel Contreras ’16, a member of The Herald’s editorial page board, began planning the weekend in July 2014, and in October, they assembled a committee of 25 undergraduates to aid in organizing the weekend. To achieve their four-part vision, the organizers created an array of events aimed at first-generation students and administrators.

On Saturday afternoon, administrators discussed specific ways to create beneficial college environments for first-generation students at events such as “Opening the Ivory Tower: Admissions Officers on Defining and Recruiting First-Gen Students.” Brown said she was delighted by the open debate between students and university staff, adding that “students weren’t afraid to challenge administrators, and administrators weren’t afraid to push back.”

Throughout the weekend, student participants attended guided discussions and panels that strived to “translate personal growth into political action,” Stewart said. For example, the Saturday afternoon panel “‘As a Freshman I Wish I Knew’: Advice to First-Gen Freshman From Seniors” featured four first-generation college seniors, three from Brown and one from Penn.

Panelists shared honest experiences and provided strategic advice on how to strengthen networks of first-generation students. Speaking of past experiences at Penn, Yessenia Gutierrez said her peers who are not first-generation students “felt like they were entitled to tutoring” whilst she herself did not. Alexis Rodriguez ’15, a student on the panel, used this as a transition point to say that there should be “a better presentation” of resources as first-generation students begin their college careers.

Later in the evening, Eric Waldo ’00, executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, gave the keynote address at a dinner hosted in Alumnae Hall. Like the panelists, Waldo spoke of empowerment for first-generation students. He spoke extensively about the Reach Higher campaign, which aims to increase enrollment in higher education nationwide.

To the 1vyG team, helping to establish connections between first-generation attendees was just as important as featuring prominent speakers. “One of the things that … I wanted people to get out of this was genuine connection — the idea that we’re first gens and we’re not alone,” Stewart said.

Aubrey McDonough ’17, a student attendee, said, “Coming to this conference, sharing my experience and hearing the experience of other people with similar stories” gave her “a sense of solidarity” and the feeling that she belongs.

As students and administrators left campus Sunday, Brown said the 1vyG team looks forward to future collaborations with first-generation activists at other universities. Attendees are mobilized and ready to implement solutions and continue the discourse  at their own campuses, she added. As a result of this mobilization, as well as the increased transparency among first-generation community organizers, Contreras said he believes that the conference “will create ripples across higher ed.”


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