Section: News

First-generation students reflect

by Deborah Malamud

When Issam Hamdallah ’16, the first in his family to attend college, moved from San Francisco to Gambier to begin his Kenyon career, he immediately felt out of place in an ocean of “short shorts, polos and boat shoes.”

“I came from a multicultural [and] very diverse place,” Hamdallah said. “[Coming] here was a bit of a shock.” As a result, Hamdallah chose to join REACH (Recognizing Each Other’s Ability to Conquer the Hill), a student organization that provides junior and senior mentors for first years and sophomores, as well as financial and emotional support for students of color and low-income and first-generation students.

First-generation students make up 11 percent of the Class of 2018, according to Kenyon’s website. This percentage may be higher for the Class of 2019, as Kenyon accepted a record-breaking 128 first-generation students. The presence of first-generation college students has prompted multiple of-

“During orientation … we have a dinner specifically for first-generation students and their families,” Associate Dean of Admissions Darryl Uy said. “It’s a good way for families to meet administrators who were first-generation students so they can immediately identify their support system.”

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI), which President Sean Decatur created this past fall, is instrumental in providing first-generation students with tools for success.

“If you have parents who went to college, then they are a resource,” Professor of English and Associate Provost for ODEI Ivonne García said. “But if a student doesn’t have parents who went to college, then those parents are not [able] to share their experiences with the student. … We want to make sure that institutions … don’t assume that everyone comes from the same background.”

The programs that REACH and ODEI offer are meant to serve “first-generation students in conjunction with students of color,” according to García. Eighty-six out of Kenyon’s 182 total first-generation students are students of color (47.2 percent) and of the 128 first-generation students accepted into the Class of 2019, 76 are students of color (59.4 percent).  The programs that the two organizations offer –– which include mentoring, networking, Microsoft Excel tutorials and social activities –– are “open for all kinds of students,” García said.

Understanding how to approach a professor and take advantage of office hours “are issues any student might benefit from knowing [about],” García said, “but specifically for first-generation college students, they can be the difference between a smooth transition from high school to college and one that isn’t as smooth.”

Symone Roberts ’15, a REACH coordinator, joined REACH per the recommendation of her fellow classmates, who told her when she was a first year that the program was a group geared toward “minority students, first-gen college students [and children of] immigrants.”

“I was like, ‘I’m all of those things!’” Roberts said. “Freshman year, the people I met were some of the best people I ever met. … It turned out to be a great resource for networking and meeting professors. It really helped me integrate into being at Kenyon.”

Sebastian Chavez ’18, a new member of REACH, wrote in an email to the Collegian that he feels he and his friends who are also first-generation students “often do not have the same connections and knowledge that our peers’ parents do who aren’t first gen.”

Chavez, Roberts and Hamdallah cite a wide array of issues they face that their non-first-generation peers do not, such as the inability to ask parents for advice regarding choosing a major, the lack of family connections that can be used to obtain internships and the unaffordability of professional attire.

“Programs like REACH and KEEP [Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program] help these difficulties from leadership … and job application workshops … to simply helping us get to the airport or providing meals during breaks,” Chavez wrote. He chose to come to Kenyon because the people he met during a Cultural Connections weekend “modeled the person [he wishes] to become through [his] time at Kenyon.” Chavez cited Professor García as a “stand-out person” who influenced his decision to attend Kenyon.

“College has always been the goal since I could remember because my family had stressed that no one had the chance to go while back in Ecuador,” Chavez wrote. “In this country, I would finally be the first to have the opportunity.”

Hamdallah, who noted that “there are apparent socio-economic divides at Kenyon” and thinks that Admissions should make a concerted effort to admit more financially diverse classes in the future, said “ODEI does a great job” of providing first-generation and low-income students with what they need.

García emphasized the importance of institutions taking a diverse array of backgrounds into account in order to better set up students for success. She made reference to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a first-generation college student herself, who wrote in her autobiography, My Beloved World, that at the beginning of her academic career she didn’t know what an internship was or how to obtain one.

“As you discover what strength you can draw from your community in this world from which it stands apart, look outward as well as inward,” Sotomayor wrote in My Beloved World. “Build bridges instead of walls.”

Hamdallah’s and Roberts’ work as REACH mentors, the formative values of leadership instilled through KEEP, and the establishment and participation of ODEI seek to ensure that Kenyon’s bridges remain strong.

“Equity is the idea that no student is going to feel disadvantaged,” García said.


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