Solinger Jeffers: It’s Time to Invest More in the First-Generation Community
The First Generation Office should be moved to the Office of Community Life and Inclusivity and given the resources and means to thrive.
Until recently, the First-Year Student Enrichment Program pre-orientation served as the primary resource for incoming first-generation students. It is the precursor to the First Generation Office, which opened its doors in Sept. 2021 under the supervision of Academic Support Services. With the re-opening of the FGO — now located in Sudikoff Hall — and the launch of Toward Equity, the College’s latest diversity, equity and inclusion initiative, now is the perfect time to review the resources that the College provides for first-generation students.
While many first-generation students, a group that includes myself, might be in need of additional academic support, this is not an issue exclusive to our community. Instead, having an office specifically for first-gen students is essential because so many of us lack financial support from our families, as well as practical advice. Many of us have left everyone we knew thousands of miles away, venturing into the unknown. First-gen students are in need of personal guidance in this complicated social landscape, and the FGO would be most effective by tackling this broader need for mentorship and community. Thus, I suggest that the First Generation Office be repositioned as a subdivision of the Office of Community Life and Inclusivity, rather than Academic Support Services.
The FGO’s programs have a wide reach, with 89 students in the Class of 2026 having participated in FYSEP alone — approximately eight percent of all 1,126 incoming undergraduates. More than $13 million in support from alumni donors and continued collaboration between several stakeholders across campus have demonstrated the goodwill of Dartmouth’s greater community. I am grateful for the expanding resources for the first-gen community, but only recently did I come to feel that there was any support from the College administration.
The excitement I felt when the FGO was established was initially clouded by unease. As an “Exvangelical” — a former Evangelical Chrisitan — I was hurt when we were assigned a suite in the back of a local church. I know that other students and staff members felt similarly. I was happy that first-gen students were not stuffed in a closet, but the back of a church didn’t feel much better.
However, many students of color and myself were excited to see when several women of color joined the staff, in the fall 2021 and in the summer 2022. New hires led to initiatives like the Prepare to Launch Program — a collaboration with Center for Professional Development to aid first-gen students with their transition into the labor market. These staffing changes reflect the majority of the first-generation students, all while working to ensure that the FGO provides support during a student’s full four years. In addition to this exciting growth, I was excited to eventually learn that we would be moving to a new space in Sudikoff Hall. More than just being more comfortable for students like me, this recognizable and secular space adds an aura of professionalism to our office.
Many campus leaders have been happy to boast such expansion of first-generation programs in the past. In conversation with The Dartmouth in May 2021, when asked about what the College was doing in regard to racial justice, College President Phil Hanlon described FYSEP and the E.E. Just Program — a two-year fellowship for underrepresented minorities in STEM — as mere “philanthropic commitments” and not a necessary means of supporting marginalized and deserving students. At least we can agree that there is a connection between class and race in this country.
While I find it appropriate to boast about a job well done, I urge Dartmouth’s leadership to reconceptualize their approach to providing resources for first-generation students and students of color. It is disheartening to hear that supporting these communities is conceived as just some sort of philanthropic venture. This approach leads a great number of first-gen students — especially those who are further marginalized — to feel like a mere diversity token. We should receive support because we deserve it, not because it bolsters the College’s image as a charitable or generous institution.
Still, I feel myself gaining hope as the FGO matures and as we continue to see first-gen representation in several key roles around campus, including Dean of the College Scott Brown and Vice Provost for Enrollment Lee Coffin. An advocate for first-gen students, Coffin has argued that we are not academically underprepared compared to our peers and that FYSEP has been particularly valuable as a cultural transition to Dartmouth. This insight, paired with my own experiences and those of my peers, leads me to assert that first-gen students deserve to be recognized as a community and really be given equal opportunity to thrive.
It is not realistic to expect the FGO to support students by duplicating resources that other departments at Dartmouth already work hard to provide. Why compete with colleagues at the Academic Skills Center or Student Wellness Center, who provide essential, campus-wide resources? Instead, we should expect the FGO to guide first-gen students, both as individuals and as a community, to opportunities that will help them curate their own success. The FGO can and will strive to foster an inclusive campus for first-generation students.
To make this all possible, the College must properly situate the office within the greater organizational structure. Ensuring that we have a proper space in Sudikoff Hall is the first step, but properly repositioning the FGO within the College will better promote cross-campus collaboration and community-building. The College must then provide the resources and personnel required to efficiently collaborate with potential partners and current stake-holders across campus. Our diverse community of Dartmouth first-generation students deserves to be treated with dignity — like the smart, independent and capable people that we are — not thought of as charity cases.
Damien Solinger Jeffers is a FYSEP alum and the Community Engagement Student Director & QuestBridge Liaison at the First Generation Office.