New First-Generation Office will oversee FYSEP, King Scholars programs

The office, which hired former Office of Pluralism and Leadership program coordinator Theresa Hernandez as its assistant director, was funded by $13 million in alumni donations.

by Pierce Wilson | 7/30/21 5:05am

july-21-fysep-dinner

Students gathered for an FGLI community dinner in Occom Commons earlier this week.

Source: Courtesy of Jay Davis

This summer, the College is establishing the First-Generation Office in order to provide greater support to first-generation and low-income students. The FGO, which has hired former Office of Pluralism and Leadership program coordinator Theresa Hernandez as its assistant director, will oversee the First Year Student Enrichment Program and King Scholars program. The expanded, four-week-long version of FYSEP, a pre-orientation program that half of incoming FGLI students attend, will happen in person and on campus beginning Aug. 9.

According to FGO director and FYSEP director Jay Davis ’90, these changes are due in part to $13 million in alumni donations given to FYSEP, including a $10 million contribution from A. George “Skip” Battle ’66.

Davis said that the formation of the new office, which now has three staff members, “dramatically changes” the ability of the College to meet the needs of all FGLI students. According to Davis, some FGLI students may not attend FYSEP because they were not invited or because they did not have the time to attend the program, among other reasons. 

“[The creation of the FGO] formalizes what has been true all along, which is that we support all [FGLI] students at Dartmouth, not just those who do the summer session,” Davis said. “There are non-FYSEP [FGLI] students who we’ve always wanted to support, but we just haven’t had the capacity to in the way that we would like.” 

Prior to the creation of the FGO, FYSEP student director Zeyris Lizmet Rodoli Contreras ’22 said that although FYSEP events are open to all students, the FYSEP team typically advertised them as being open to FYSEP students, which included only a “specific cohort” of FGLI students. 

“Now that we have the privilege of being able to serve the entire FGLI community, we want to let FGLI students at large know that we’re here for them,” Rodoli Contreras said. 

Davis said that with the formation of FGO, FGLI students who do not participate in FYSEP will also have the opportunity to be paired with upperclassmen mentors this year, a program that was previously exclusive to FYSEP students. Additionally, he said that FGO has formed an FGLI alumni group, which already has 93 members, and will be piloting a program where FGLI faculty and staff can be mentors for FGLI students. 

“If you are [an FGLI] Dartmouth student, you are also likely to be [an FGLI] consultant or [FGLI] high school principal someday, and so we’re thinking about helping students prepare for the next eighty years of their life as well,” Davis said.

Hernandez, who officially stepped into her position on July 16, said that she was excited to move into her new role because it will allow her to serve “a broader group of students” and work to build community. 

She added that she feels the work of the FGO is important because although “student need exists at all levels,” many students come to Dartmouth having had more opportunities that afford “pre-college knowledge,” whereas FGLI students may be navigating Dartmouth for the first time on their own.

“[Without the FGO], you would be immersing yourself in an environment you’d never set foot in before,” Hernandez said. “So that’s why the work is important to me, and also as [an FGLI] student myself, I just know that struggle.”

Davis said that Hernandez is a “wonderful addition” to the FGO and that she will “dramatically expand” the office’s ability to support all FGLI students. 

“She has a deep understanding — as [an FGLI] graduate herself — of what it means to be the first in your family to go to college and what it means to come from fewer financial resources than many students at Dartmouth,” Davis said. “I think that deep understanding really sets her up to support our first-gen students.”

Rodoli Contreras and Manuel Patiño ’22, who will be a mentor for FYSEP this summer, echoed Davis’ sentiments. 

“Her energy is just so wonderful and really welcoming, and I think it was just such a great choice to hire someone who is a woman, who is BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color], who is queer, because that’s what most of the FGLI community is,” Rodoli Contreras said.

According to Patiño, the “biggest thing” that the FGO could benefit from in the “crucial stages” of its formation is outreach to the “general community.” 

In addition to the establishment of FGO and Hernandez’s hiring, the $13 million gift also funded the expansion of FYSEP, which previously took place over five days prior to new student orientation and now takes place over four weeks.

Last summer was the first time that the lengthened FYSEP program occurred, but due to the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program took place virtually.

During this year’s programming, 95 FYSEP students and 15 full-time undergraduate staff will live on campus in the McLaughlin cluster. Fifty-eight undergraduate mentors and 10 faculty members will also work with this year’s cohort, Davis said. 

This year’s FYSEP students will have opportunities to live and work in spaces across campus, including the Class of 1953 Commons and Baker-Berry Library, according to Davis. They will also have the opportunity to engage with organizations across campus, such as the Dickey Center for International Understanding, the Student Wellness Center, the Student Center for Research, Writing and Information Technology — commonly known as RWIT — and student performing arts groups. 

“We’re trying to expand students’ understanding of the range of possibilities that Dartmouth offers, and then to increase their sense of self-confidence that they can take advantage of those possibilities,” Davis said. 

On the academic side, Davis said that FYSEP is building on much of what it established last year during the inaugural run of the four-week program, but adapting it to fit an in-person model.

“What we did not feel we were able to do in four and a half days was to make enough of a difference in students’ academic preparation,” Davis said. Through classes covering college knowledge, introductory STEM and culture, identity and belonging, FYSEP participants “will get a real taste of what Dartmouth classes are like,” Davis said. 

Psychology professor John Pfister, who will be teaching the culture, identity and belonging course during FYSEP this summer, echoed Davis’ sentiments about the deeper academic preparation that this year’s FYSEP session will provide.

“Those minor exposures [to academic content] in past years were, in a sense, an inoculation, where students get one exposure and are then expected to know what Dartmouth academics are like,” Pfister said. “You need to have both the ebb and flow, both excitement and knowledge, and the tiredness, and all those things that make up an academic term, but that I don’t think many students expect when coming in.”

Samantha Palermo ’24, who participated in FYSEP in 2020, said that the four-week program “introduced [her] to college academics and gave [her] a taste of the rigor of college in a low-pressure and supportive setting.” 

Vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid Lee Coffin emphasized that FYSEP provides an “incredibly valuable” cultural transition to Dartmouth, but that the notion that FGLI students are academically underprepared is a misconception.

“It’s one of my pet peeves when people say ‘[FGLI] means unprepared,’” Coffin said. “That’s not true at all. They’re the first-gen cohort and they’re every bit as academically prepared as other students.”

Davis emphasized the significance that programs like FYSEP have for the entire Dartmouth community.

“Part of our goal is for FGLI students to understand that Dartmouth is better because they are here as FGLI students,” Davis said. “Our community at Dartmouth is significantly stronger by having 17% of our incoming class be first-generation students.”

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