Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the center’s name from First-Generation College Student Center to First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center, approved in early May 2016.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Over the last few years, a growing array of activities, programs and support resources for first-generation students at Brown — driven largely by students themselves — have led to the expansion of the First-Generation College Student Initiative at the University.
This summer, these resources will get a dedicated home of their own on campus, with Brown set to open a new First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center in its renovated Sciences Library to support students whose parents did not complete a four-year college education.
The Center's opening is one of the steps noted in Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion, an action plan released last month. The plan identified first-generation students, who comprise approximately 16 percent of the undergraduate student body at Brown, as a community in need of increased recognition and support.
“First-generation students can face unique challenges when they arrive on college campuses, and the First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center at Brown will become a central ingredient in our effort to support them in successfully navigating everything from academics to campus life,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel. “The Center will continue to strengthen support for and increase recognition of this dynamic community — and the rich backgrounds and experiences they bring to the University community — that our students have worked so tirelessly to organize.”
Juniors Emily Doglio and Viet Nguyen, co-founders and co-presidents of the student group First-Generation College Students at Brown, said that being a first-generation student can be isolating at times. For them, the Center will be more than just a space for community and support — it will be evidence of the University’s commitment to them and their peers.
“Before coming to Brown, I had never spoken to anyone about what the experience of going to and living at college was like,” Doglio said. “There was a lot of vocabulary and social capital that I didn’t have, and I had to catch up in a lot of ways. This shows that first-gen students matter at Brown. And that we are not alone.”
Brown’s newest center
The creation of the Center arises after several years of student-driven efforts to support first-gens — as these students are often called — and it will join the Brown Center for Students of Color, the LGBTQ Center, and the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, among other identity centers and offices on the Brown campus.
In May 2015, Brown students proposed the creation of a physical space to expand first-generation student support and recognition. The Center’s $30,000 annual budget was approved by the Corporation of Brown University last month as part of the fiscal year 2017 budget.
With a dedicated home in the Sciences Library, the Center will provide office and meeting space, a community lounge and a shared classroom/event space, all centrally located near key academic support centers. As part of a project in which a number of floors in the Sciences Library are being repurposed, the Center will share the building’s fifth floor with the Writing Center and Tutoring Services; nearby floors will include the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, the Language Resource Center, the Instructional Technology Group and the Science Center.
Staff in the first-gen center will include a graduate coordinator and six undergraduate coordinators — positions to be funded by the newly approved budget dollars — with oversight and coordination provided by co-directors Ricky Gresh, director for campus life projects, and Yolanda Rome, assistant dean of the college for first-year and sophomore studies.
Students and administrators say that many students arrive with minimal prior exposure to a university like Brown, either because their parents did not attend college or for other reasons — having parents who studied outside the U.S. or at a community college, for example. The Center’s outreach will focus on any student who identifies as first-generation, including those who do not meet the traditional definition.
Having a physical space for first-gens to gather is essential, said Gresh, a first-generation college graduate himself.
“Growing research shows that in order for first-generation students to succeed, we must affirm their identities and experiences and create a sense of belonging for them on campus,” he said. “To do that requires Brown to recognize that our traditional strategies for supporting students weren’t designed with these students in mind. We have to go beyond offering resources and expecting students to have the tools to navigate them on their own, to building trust and relationships with students and meeting them in their spaces.”
Though countless first-generation students have excelled at Brown throughout its history, lack of previous exposure to college means many new first-gens do not arrive with the immediate context to easily navigate interactions like choosing classes, finding academic support, communicating with professors and searching for career-related opportunities, said Rome, also a first-generation college graduate. Some face financial stresses, she added; others may find challenges in adjusting to the culture of college and finding a peer community they relate to on campus.
With this, there is sometimes the assumption that these students come unprepared for Brown, said Rome. “This is not true,” she said. “First-gen students arrive with many assets and strengths. The challenge for Brown is to be better prepared to integrate their skills and diverse perspectives into our advising approaches and intellectual community.”
Major programs at the Center will include outreach to incoming students, weekly student group meetings, a peer mentoring program, resource events with University services (such as financial aid, counseling and career advising), student and alumni networking, and community-building events. The Center will also be a home for ongoing collaborations with low-income student support networks and recent efforts to begin connecting with graduate students who were the first in their families to go to college and now to pursue advanced degrees.
First-gens at Brown
Recent first-generation initiatives on campus date to 2006, when a group of first-gens launched an informal peer support group. By 2009, the group had evolved into Brown’s official First-Generation College Student Initiative, a collaboration among students, faculty and staff that grew over time to provide regular outreach and communication, an annual schedule of community-building events, and an expanding range of services. This past year, for example, student initiative resulted in the creation of a textbook lending library and a targeted “How To Brown” guidebook.
In 2014, a group of Brown undergraduates created 1vyG, a student network to connect first-gens at the University with peers across the Ivy League; in spring 2015, they hosted the first 1vyG conference on the Brown campus, convening 250 first-generation students, as well as alumni, administrators and experts, from more than 10 colleges and universities.
In large part due to these student efforts and initiatives, Brown is now home to an active and connected community of self-identified first-generation college students, Gresh said.
“One of the greatest outcomes is a tremendously heightened visibility of the first-generation identity,” Gresh said. “Now, when you go to a campus event, even faculty members will introduce themselves and say, ‘I’m first-generation.’ The increased visibility of the identity makes it easier for our students to feel affirmed and connect with faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and each other.”
The First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center is expected to open in the summer of 2016, and an opening event will be planned for the Fall 2016 semester.