First Generation Student Summit Held at Amherst
Issue   |   Wed, 03/05/2014 - 00:24

Amherst College hosted the second annual First Generation College Student Summit on March 1. A total of 125 students and several faculty members from 23 different college campuses came to attend the event and discuss the issues first generation college students face.

The event was created by Class Action, a non-profit organization based in Boston and founded in Hadley that, according to its website, aims to “explore class-consciousness and dismantle classism, with a particular focus on the intersections between class and race.”

“The summit is not just about helping first generation students but to make higher education more accessible and more equitable, and to have students be a driving voice on their campuses,” said Anne Phillips, outreach and development director of Class Action.

Class Action held its first summit last year at Brown Univ., and 37 students from seven colleges attended, including students from Amherst. Since last year, the summit and the organization have gained more attention and support from colleges around the New England area. While this year’s participant turnout has increased since last year, the summit’s goal has remained the same.

“Our goal for this year was to do the same as last year and to refine the roughness of Brown,” said Timothy Gaura ’15E, one of two Amherst organizers of the event. “We also wanted to create a place of networking and community and to educate and bring up self-awareness [among first-gen students].”

The event opened with a speech by keynote speaker Kevin Jennings, executive director of Arcus Foundation, a global foundation focused on social justice and conservation. In his speech, Jennings shared the challenges he faced as a first generation, low income student in Harvard and is eventual success as teacher, gay rights activist and government administrator.

After the introductory events, students attended various breakout sessions throughout the morning and afternoon. Some sessions involved presentations regarding first generation student identity, race and socioeconomic class. Others were discussion panels where students shared possible changes to their schools’ policy regarding first generation and underprivileged students. Sessions were led and directed by faculty, students and administrators from various colleges and universities including Harvard and Williams.

Gaura and Student Life Fellow Flora Chan, the two Amherst College organizers of the event, directed one of the afternoon breakout sessions, a workshop called “Shifting from Negative Perceptions into a Community of Belonging.” The session aimed to be a safe space for participants to discuss the alienation from community, friends and family that can be common for first generation students. The workshop then moved from focusing on isolation to focus on finding community, and included an activity in which students make pipe cleaner figures that they put together to symbolize the transition.

The event concluded with a campus caucus, in which students from the participating colleges met with other students from the same college to share their insights and discuss possible solutions to improve college life for first generation students.

Participants said that the summit was important because it put a much-needed spotlight on issues faced by first generation students and also showed the challenges Amherst College faces.

“President Martin touts [Amherst’s first generation population], but it’s still invisible on campus,” Chan said.

Many first generation students at Amherst agreed that the first generation identity on campus has largely been hidden from the main student body.

“It’s not something people identify each other as,” said Micah Stewart ’17, one of the Amherst student representatives at the summit. “It doesn’t seem like a relevant part of our identity, even though it affects a lot of our experience.”

Stewart and Sophie Delfeus ’17, who participated in the summit, are planning to create an affiliation club for first generation students in Amherst. They said summit provided valuable insight and inspiration for their new club.

“I realized the importance of at least creating a space [for first-generation students],” Delfeus said. “I had reservations coming in about whether people will support it or not, but in the end of the day we just need a space for these students. Our school has made a big push to make diversity on campus, so it’s the responsibility of the administration and students to support the diversity here.”

There will be a planning meeting for the first-generation club on March 7 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the terrace room in Valentine Hall.