Students attend 1vyG conference at Harvard

by Rachel Favors | 2/23/16 7:34pm

Dartmouth students attended the Inter-Ivy First-Generation Students' Conference.

Three-hundred and fifty college students, administrators, alumni, experts and community partners from around the country came together at Harvard University to celebrate the first-generation college student identity during the second annual Inter-Ivy First-Generation Students’ conference last weekend.

The conference, hosted by the 1vyG student organization that spans the Ivy League, featured student-guided discussions, breakout sessions and panels led by corporate representatives and experts in educational inequality and first-generation student experiences. Prudence Carter, a sociology and education professor at Stanford University, delivered the keynote address.

Coming off of the momentum of the inaugural conference at Brown University, the first-generation student experience has received “relatively new coverage” and a greater number of students are embracing their first-generation student identity and experience, Dartmouth delegate Ayub Sharif ’19 said.

Sharif said that the conference was intended to foster a greater sense of community among first-generation students, who can often feel alone within elite institutions. The conference provides a space to come together to speak about their experiences, he said, whereas in the past students have not always felt comfortable expressing challenges they face as first-generation college students.

The conference aimed to organize first-generation students around the understanding that there are unique challenges that they face associated with integrating into campus life and academic expectations at elite institutions, said Micere Keels, a panelist on the “Helping Colleges Help Students” discussion and University of Chicago human development professor.

Schools are not always effective at managing these challenges, Keels said, which led students to take action to better understand their own situations and help their schools expand institutional understanding and support.

Conference speaker Paul Tough said that students have the opportunity to think about advocacy and kinds of changes they want their administration to make in order to improve the first-generation student experience.

Students collectively sharing their experiences also allows them to identify commonalities in policy and agenda issues and push for change with stronger voices as they display the same concerns across multiple institutions, Keels said.

Additional goals of the conference include establishing “genuine networking connections” between first-generation students, professors and employers and encouraging students to take advantage of these resources to enhance their college experience and success beyond college, Dartmouth delegate Julian Marcu ’18 said.

Tough said that the conference sends a message that the first-generation experience is happening everywhere and not just at a specific institution, which gives students more of a sense of connection, belonging and strong community.

“It is specifically reassuring for students to be aware that this [is] a struggle that people have gone through, are going through and have overcome,” Tough said.

Tough, who is currently writing a book about inequality in American higher education, said that in his “Who Needs College” session at the conference he discussed how the specific challenges of first-generation students at elite universities connect to broader questions of inequality in higher education.

Keels said that in her panel discussion she spoke about research evidence on first-generation student college transition and success with students and administrators. She specifically emphasized the importance for universities to report the graduation rates of first-generation students because it forces the institutions to be held accountable for improving those outcomes, she said.

The other issue, particularly for underrepresented students at elite institutions, is not whether or not they will graduate, but what will be the “social, physiological and emotional toll on these students if these institutions are not as welcoming and supportive to non-traditional students,” Keels said.

She added that a lot of data indicates that first-generation status determines college success more so than race and ethnicity. Although first-generation students might graduate at very high rates, it will come at a high cost to their personal well-being. The conversation needs to be more about ensuring that their college experience is positive, rather than on just ensuring the graduate, Keels said.

Sharif said that he was especially impacted by Carter’s keynote address in which she explained that first-generation student challenges are more of an integration and inclusion issue rather than a diversity issue. Carter also emphasized how this inclusion is cultural and not just numerical, he said.

Sharif said that he also enjoyed the conference because he and the other Dartmouth delegates had an action planning gathering where they discussed building a stronger first-generation community on campus and holding the College more accountable for making the campus environment more inclusive, he said.

“Although this movement is relatively new, we should expect to see more activism by first-generation students on Dartmouth’s campus,” Sharif said.

Marcu said that his favorite event was the panel discussion with experts from various companies such as Google and Goldman Sachs who were also the first in their families to attend college. These experts shared their struggles in becoming successful and were “open and eager to help fellow first-generation students achieve their goals.”

Dartmouth delegate Halimo Hassen ’17 said that her favorite part were the breakout sessions where she engaged with students from different universities and they discussed how they could take what they learned back to their schools to grow their first-generation student programs.

Hassen said that she is a mentor for the College’s First Year Student Enrichment Program, which is designed to assist first-generation students to succeed academically and in the greater College community through an eight-day pre-orientation program and ongoing support throughout their first year. Dartmouth students seem to be “ahead of the curve in regards to first-generation students programs” because some peer institutions do not have such programs, she said.

FYSEP and other support programs are “crucial” for the transition of first-generation students, and conferences like 1vyG provide the information and skills needed to improve FYSEP and its mentorship networks, Hassen added.