Strength in numbers: “First-gen” students find common ground, community

Thanks to growing campus resources and an engaged group of alumni—not to mention some timely care packages—Brown’s community of first-generation students is now stronger than ever.

College life brings with it inherent changes. Living away from home for the first time, navigating an aggressive course load that zig-zags across campus, managing finances, and balancing ambitious schedules is just a short list of the new experiences that could be daunting for the average first-year.

For the 11.6 percent of Brown undergraduates who identify as first-generation (those whose parents did not complete a four-year education), such challenges can feel amplified without someone at home guiding them through their college journey.

“Flipping the paradigm”

But they're not having to find their way alone. Thanks to on-campus resources and a group of engaged alumni, there's more support than ever for "first-gen" students.

"Many of the students who visit us are looking to understand what Brown is about," says Julio Reyes ’12, program director for the newly renamed U-FLi Center (Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center). "They have had limited interactions with places of higher education, or there's something about Brown specifically that is new to them."

The work of the center, which opened in 2016 on the fifth floor of the SciLi is three-fold: In addition to advising and connecting students to resources on campus, Reyes and his staff have created a speaker series and scholars program, and continuously engage with University administrators on how they can best support these students.

"Our focus is on flipping the paradigm of how people think about these students," he explains. "We want them to be recognized for their strengths. And we want first-gen students to understand that they have the capital and assets to succeed; we just help them map those strengths onto the Brown experience."

Care (packages) and connections

While much progress is being made on campus, a group of first-generation alumni—organized through the Brown Alumni Association (BAA) Board of Governors—has been doing their part, to ensure students feel supported.

"First-gen students want more than the diploma. They are problem solvers and ideators. It's time we lift them up," says BAA Board member and First-Gen Alumni Advisory Committee member Max Clermont ’11 MPH’12.

Committee photoSince forming, the alumni group has focused on strengthening its connection with first-generation alumni and students. There are now regular events that bring alumni to campus to talk about their academic and professional journeys, as well as a reception during Commencement Weekend—and other events are in the works.

First-Gen Alumni Advisory Committee Chair Michelle Hernandez ’15 says it's having an impact: "First-gen students and alumni are pioneers, navigating new and challenging horizons for themselves and for their communities back at home. This is no easy feat for anyone to do alone. These events create safe-spaces to discuss their journeys at a more personal level and reaffirm their experiences."

With increased engagement and awareness, more personal connections are being made. Alumni groups in Chicago and Boston create care packages around exam time, shipping off snacks and notes of encouragement to students to provide a little extra boost during stressful periods.

"Through these events, students come to know that they're not the first to be first in their family to attend college—that there is a legacy of students who have gone through similar experiences," Reyes explains.

The first-gen alumni have a language, an identity, an agenda and, most of all now, a community. Having a space on campus, engaging academic and administrative departments in the work, and alumni plugging into efforts has been a game changer.

Max Clermont ’11 MPH’12

A path forward

Brown's first-generation community has gained momentum in recent years. The First-Generation College Student Initiative launched in 2009. That helped spur FLiCon and 1vyG, conferences created at Brown that bring together alumni and students from around the country to talk about some of the intricacies and obstacles of their college experiences.

And now, with the on-campus presence of the U-FLi Center in tandem with the BAA, this group has truly created a better sense of belonging, both on campus and off.

"The first-gen alumni have a language, an identity, an agenda and, most of all now, a community. Having a space on campus, engaging academic and administrative departments in the work, and alumni plugging into efforts has been a game changer. Brown is a trailblazer in this space," says Clermont.

Looking ahead, Reyes hopes to see even more alumni rallying for students. With this community, when future first-generation students walk through the Van Wickle Gates for the first time, they'll already be connected to a network of alumni who understand their journey.

"First-gen students need to know that they belong here," Reyes says. "Our role is to make Brown work for them."

Want to get involved? There are many ways to connect with Brown's first-generation community:

  1. Connect with the Brown First-Generation Alumni Facebook community.
  2. If you identify as first-generation, update your Brown profile to get more information on new initiatives (select First-Generation Low Income College Student in "Networking Topics").
  3. Like the U-FLi Center Facebook page.
  4. Join Brown's First-Gen Alumni and Student LinkedIn Group.
  5. Support one of Brown's many related giving opportunities:
    Investment in Diversity Scholarship Aid
    The Brown Promise
    IPC Brown Annual Fund Scholarship
    Undergraduate Scholarship Aid