Blending First-Generation Minorities into Campus Life at Williams College, by Gary M. Stern

Minority students accepted at Williams College, the academically rigorous liberal arts college located in William stown, Mass, have already surpassed several academic hurdles. With high GPAs and SAT scores and first-rate extracurricular activities, they’re already poised for success. But for many first-generation minority students, adjusting to a demanding academic campus can be challenging if not daunting.

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To make it easier for students to acclimate at Williams College, it established a series of First Generation Initiatives in 2013. The program is multi-faceted and includes three-day pre-orientation, workshops through the year on financial aid and academic life, monthly dinners with first-generation faculty and an advisory board to suggest events.

Undergraduates at Williams College for fall 2015 consisted of 54 percent White students, 13 percent Latino, eight percent African American, 12 percent Asian and six percent bi-racial students. Therefore, more than one-quarter of its students are minorities, and that number is on the rise.

Rosanna Reyes, associate dean at Williams College who runs First Generation Initiatives, said it launched in 2013 because the college was becoming increasingly diversified and wanted to help students navigate the transition to higher education. Moreover, it aimed to emphasize that “first generation students thrive in the college (inside and outside) and ensure that all students are afforded the same opportunities that all their peers have,” she noted.

Reyes said the First Generation Initiatives carried several goals including exposing students to the college campus and the resources it offered and connecting them with classmates to encourage a sense of community. Many, in fact, felt invisible, so letting them know that their numbers were ascending on campus encouraged them to feel less alone and isolated, she suggested. 

All first-generation students and their parents or siblings are invited to pre-orientation events. About 75 to 80 percent of students invited are minorities, and the remainder consists of first-generation White students.  Parents of about half of the students that attended brought their parents or siblings. Many parents from students in the Northeast participated, but most West Coast parents weren’t able to make it.

Reyes, a Perth Amboy, N.J., native of Dominican heritage whose doctorate from Rutgers University focused on what it takes for high achieving first-generation students to succeed, said parental engagement is critical to first-generation success.  “Looking at ways to engage families is one of our priorities,” she said. 

First-generation minority students carry the weight of explaining what college is to their parents, so the more parents understand about these issues, the lesser the burden on the undergraduate. To understand these issues better, parents attend workshops on financial aid and academic resources.

But pre-orientation is only one of several activities that are part of the First Generation initiative. The advisory committee, consisting of two members of each First Generation class, invites a Williams College faculty on a monthly basis who is a first-generation alumnus to dinner with 25 to 30 students. The goal is to create an intimate setting where the faculty member discusses how he or she overcame any academic barriers to succeed and serve as a role model, Reyes suggested.

Since most first-generation students are minorities, how then does Williams College create a cohesive, multi-cultural campus where students of all backgrounds mingle?

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Reyes said that first-generation students are encouraged to interact with students of all backgrounds on campus in order to create an inclusive campus. Housing brings together a cultural mixture of students into dorm rooms. Moreover, she emphasizes that the student body is relatively small, amounting to about 2,000 students, and the environment in the upper Berkshires is mostly rural not citified.

“Ultimately, students spend time with who they want,” Reyes acknowledged.

Reyes also said that Williams College’s minority population has a very low dropout rate. “We have a huge retention rate for underrepresented students,” she declared. On the rare occasion when minority students leave campus, it’s attributed to Williams College not being a good fit (difficulty adjusting to a college located 3,000 miles from home or a mostly rural environment).

Velia Moran, a junior at Williams who plans on becoming a physician after college, is serving as Student Coordinator of First Generation Initiatives. Born in Mexico, she immigrated to Deming, N.M. when she was 11 years old. She says the program “allows us to share experiences with each other and with other students on campus that are not first-generation. It provides a more comfortable place for everyone.”

In fact, these initiatives instill confidence in first-generation undergraduates. “We become prouder of who we are and our backgrounds. It helps us to share these experiences with other students,” Moran explained. 

Candidly, Moran admitted that dealing with students that hail from privileged backgrounds can, at times, be challenging. “They can’t understand some of the things we have experienced, and we can’t understand some of the things they’ve gone through,” she acknowledged. 

But the First Generation program attempts to bridge this gap. Moran said it helps establish “a more comfortable and safe environment for first-generation students and tries to integrate them and transition into the community of Williams.”

As student coordinator, Moran is meeting with first-generation alumni to arrange meetings with them and First Generation students. The goal is to have them “talk about their life after Williams and what their experience was like at Williams,” she said.

The program encourages first-generation students “to be more resourceful by showing them the different resources on campus, encourages them to reach out and learn how networking is an important skill,” Moran noted.

Though the First Generation Initiative has entered its third year and has conducted targeted surveys on particular workshops, it hasn’t yet conducted a full assessment. Reyes said that she wanted to wait until students graduate from the program to determine its effectiveness, thinking that it’s easier to evaluate when students have had some distance on it.

When Reyes conducts a full analysis, she’ll focus on what effect the program has had to relieve anxieties about adjusting to campus life and to help students feel connected on campus. What role did the First Generation program play in their academic success from freshman to senior year?

In the past, when the number of minority students was relatively small on campus, it was harder to feel connected.  Now that minority students are increasing on the Williams College campus, it makes it easier to feel connected, Reyes suggested.

Due to the rising number of minority students, first-generation students are more prone to discuss their experiences navigating collegiate life. In fact, students proudly wear t-shirts emblazoned with Williams First to attest to this fact. That encourages a sense of belonging on campus, which Reyes reminded us, serves as the major thrust of the First Generation program.