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As first-gen advocacy grows, center established for cause

From fifth floor of Sciences Library, center to provide workshops, facilitate mentoring

First-generation students at Brown will have a space allocated for their needs when the University’s First-Generation Student Center opens this summer. The center will be located on the fifth floor of the Sciences Library.

“When we envisioned the center, we saw it as a way to bridge resources … and as an innovative form to create new resources for first-generation and low-income students,” said Viet Nguyen ’17, co-president of FirstGens@Brown. “One of our goals is to utilize the space as a channel to develop the community at Brown,” including undocumented and international students, along with recipients of scholarships aimed at students from diverse or low-income backgrounds, Nguyen said.

Yolanda Rome, assistant dean for first-year and sophomore studies, anticipates student-led workshops, similar to Minority Peer Counselor workshops, depending on community interests. These workshops may focus on delving into the first-generation student identity, academic matters, or anything students are enthusiastic about or find meaningful. “Whatever idea comes up, there’s a space for it,” she said.

Establishing the center shows that Brown is “willing to invest in the first-gen community,” Nguyen said. “I think the community really needs (the center) right now, and there’s a lot of momentum behind the first-generation identity,” Nguyen said.

One first-gen student, Stanley Stewart ’16, arrived on College Hill with a clear understanding of what he was here to do: get an education, get a job and support himself and his family. Stewart did not anticipate the difficulties he would face while assimilating to Brown’s environment or how much the University would change him.

Coming from an underserved high school in Atlanta, Stewart expected that other students would be better prepared for the rigor of an Ivy League education. But he did not know the extent to which that would be true. He felt the pressure to adjust to Brown’s culture of scholars, noticing the “implicit social codes” necessary to “participate in this world,” like listening to and discussing the latest National Public Radio piece, subscribing to the New York Times or wearing really nice shoes, he said.

During his sophomore year, Stewart participated in a Group Independent Study Project called “First-Generation Students in the Ivy League” with several friends and Professor of Sociology Gregory Elliott. Through the GISP, Stewart was able to connect with the term “first-generation student.” He and the other students talked about the difficulties — including differences in social class and high school education ­— that come with transitioning to college as first-gen students.

“It gave us the language to articulate the experiences we were facing,” Stewart said. “It was a turning point for me. It was really empowering to alleviate those experiences of feeling alone. I wasn’t an anomaly, and a lot of people before me went through these things, too.”

The GISP eventually led to the 2014 creation of the annual conference 1vyG, which serves to bring together first-gen students to create dialogue about their experiences.

Some common obstacles first-gen students face include accessing resources, Nguyen said. “Students don’t feel entitled to these resources,” he said, adding that this lack of entitlement may stem from first-gen students’ sense of independence developed after navigating high school and the college application process alone.

“Having to admit that they need help, to some first-gen students, may seem like a failure and a personal shortcoming rather than not having the right resources and knowing to ask for extensions or go to office hours,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen and Stewart both noted the disconnect that can develop between first-gen students and their families as they navigate a world with which they are unfamiliar.

“I didn’t know how to communicate with my friends and family at home,” Stewart said.

Being aware of the ways in which Brown can and has changed him allows Stewart to remain authentic. “I realized I shouldn’t have any shame about who I am, my background or my experiences.”

Student leaders in the first-gen community hope that future first-gen students will have easy access to resources and open discussions to mitigate these problems.

The center could include CareerLAB advising hours and mental health resources, Nguyen said.

“I’d really like to see the center be as established and as reputable and forward-thinking as a lot of other centers on campus that are doing really amazing and important work,” Stewart said, noting the Brown Center for Students of Color, the Swearer Center for Public Service and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Stewart hopes the center will also be “a place to bring in world-class scholars that are doing research on equality and social mobility,” he added.

“I’d like to see us at the forefront … of a broader national conversation,” Stewart said, adding that he hopes the center “provides students with a sense of belonging and support.”

Rome and Ricky Gresh, director of campus life projects, are working directly with seven student staffers and leaders from multiple student groups for the larger First-Generation Student Initiative, which provides resources and opportunities for first-gen students. Along with Dean of the College Maud Mandel, they worked closely to formulate and finalize the plans for the First-Generation Student Center, which will be part of the initiative.

Nguyen and Emily Doglio ’17, the other co-president of FirstGens@Brown, wrote the proposal for the center, with contributions from Manuel Contreras ’16, a former Herald editorial page editor. Nguyen came to campus over the summer to meet with Provost Richard Locke P’17 to finalize the center’s location. The entire process took less than a year, Nguyen said, adding that Mandel has been a big supporter of the center and the group’s efforts.

“I’m really excited for the students,” Rome said. The center “is a big step forward in support of creating a sense of community, so students can lean on and support each other,” she added.

“I feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment,” Stewart said. “I made a tangible difference at Brown for the better,” he said referring to his co-founding the 1vyG conference. He added that the first-gen community as a whole has worked hard for the center’s creation.



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