BY NICOLE VILLACRES '18
Smith College hosted the first Five College First Generation Conference on Friday, Nov. 4 at its Conference Center. Helen Mayer, a senior at Smith, organized and directed the conference. It hosted various panel sessions for students, faculty and staff to reflect on first generation college student issues, including sessions for first and second generation Americans, students of color and administrators.
All of the panels but one was closed to the press to ensure that the conference remained a safe space for all attendees, so they could speak openly about their experiences with the guarantee of privacy, according to Mayer.
The conference was organized specifically for those who had been or currently are first generation college students. The conference defined first generation as those who were the first in their family to attend college, as well as those who were the first to attend college in the United States and received little support during their application process.
Many students who attended the conference said they appreciated the space to talk about their identities as first generation students because it is something they felt was not talked about enough at Mount Holyoke.
"I thought the conference was wonderful...with each discussion held at the conference, you could feel some of the weight being lifted off of students' shoulders as they talked through things they never got to say out loud before," said Jennifer Kalbourji '18. "I attended a workshop that was specifically about events that have worked at other campuses and I think I recognized a number of activities that can be done at Mount Holyoke to increase visibility and support to MHC first gen students. Besides events like first gen mixers, photo campaigns, etc. I think I realized that one of the most important things needed at MHC is faculty transparency."
Kalbourji went on to explain how she felt that first generation student's classroom experience would improve if faculty were more open about their own first generation identities. She believes that highlighting that shared identity can connect more students and foster mentorship. For her, it is important to see successful first generation students as a reminder that she can also succeed in spite of any obstacles.
A group at Mount Holyoke has formed for first-generation and low-income students, spearheaded by President Danielle Brown ‘18, and while Kalbourji celebrates the initiatives students have taken to support each other, she wants to see more on the behalf of administrators as well as workshops during orientation or a pre-college program.
"Besides a support group, I think Mount Holyoke needs advisors or administrators who specifically work to address the needs of first generation students. What we really need is administrative support to put ideas into fruition. One student at the conference summed this up perfectly by highlighting that a faculty representative would create an institutional memory of whatever an organization on campus is doing," said Kalbourji.
Although the student group, known as the Low-Income and First-Generation Students Group, was initially conceived by Brown and Areeba Kamal ‘16 as a support group, they have started to focus on administrative remodeling. Kamal and Brown met with the head of Student Financial Services to see if they would create a position within the department to address students, especially LIFG students, frustrations with the process. The position of a financial peer mentor has been implemented in the department as of this semester.
“During the process of trying to get SFS to implement that job, I also made moves to create the group. I initially wanted it to be just a support group but there's so much administrative remodelling necessary that it definitely needs to be an ongoing thing,” said Brown. “ I've been working over the last year and a half or so to make it into a real organization. Seniors, especially Kelly Landaverde and Anqa Khan, have been extremely supportive and meet with administrators all the time on the group's behalf. The Student Life department has been incredibly responsive.”
The LIFG Student Group hopes to continue the conversations started at the conference and will soon have steadier meetings and more Mount Holyoke specific events.