The University celebrated its first-ever National First Generation, Low-Income (FGLI) Day on Monday, Nov. 8 with a social open to all FGLI students, faculty, administration, and local high schoolers at the Labyrinth Tent. The FGLI Advisory Board, the Resource Center, and the Office for Equity and Inclusion organized the celebration.
Members of the FGLI Advisory Board and the Socioeconomic Status and Disability Resource Center Interns expanded programming to include numerous events scattered throughout the week, including the FGLI Coffee Chat, Winter Clothing Social, Build Your Resume, and FGLI Formal. Through these events, the FGLI Advisory Board turned National FGLI Day into National FGLI Week, expanding the celebration and creating community in the process.
“We wanted to provide a space where it was for specifically FGLI students, and for these students to be around people with so similar or shared experiences,” Questbridge Liaison and Socioeconomic Status and Disability Resource Center Intern Gloria Kang ’22 said. “I think that is something that’s really important and difficult to have on a campus where many FGLI students are scattered and in different pockets of campus.”
Nov. 8 was selected as National FGLI Day because it is the anniversary of the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA), which sought to achieve equity within the field of education. Originally, National FGLI Day was an initiative headed by the National Association of the Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) to raise awareness of issues pertaining to the extensive FGLI community and build a community within higher education institutions. The Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the Center for First-Generation Student Success launched the initiative, which has been celebrated by a number of colleges and universities, in 2017. Wesleyan intended to celebrate National FGLI day in 2020 but could not because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the recent finalization of FGLI Day was significant, members of the University’s FGLI Advisory Board and Resource Center interns alike thought there was room for expansion.
“We kind of started with the approach of the FGLI National Day coming up, so we were like, ’Why do a day when we could do a week,’” Shakira Fortson ’22, who is a member of the FGLI Advisory Board and a Socioeconomic Status and Disability Resource Center Intern, said. “We wanted to give FGLI students a week to have fun in exciting events planned because this is a stressful semester, and, especially for the formal, a lot of students haven’t had the opportunity to dress up or have fun with the pandemic going on.”
The National FGLI Day Social, open to University students, faculty, the administration, and Upward Bound Math/Science students, kicked off the week. Director of the Resource Center Demetrius Colvin facilitated a canvas project, in which participants wrote words of affirmation and celebration on a canvas in response to the prompt “proud to be first.” The project would present the celebration to the wider campus community. Colvin also facilitated a whiteboard project, where participants were presented with mini whiteboards, each containing different prompts that focused on different facets of campus life, such as community building or academic curricula.
Director of Upward Bound Math/Science Miguel Peralta, who attended the social, appreciated the event and admired the sense of community that it created.
“I thought it went great,” Peralta said. “President [Michael] Roth was out there. I saw a number of faculty and staff along with just a very vibrant group of students…. Even if you didn’t know the person standing next to you or the faculty members, staff members, it was a place where it was just so down to earth that you can have those conversations and know that there’s something that binds all of us out there.”
The inclusion of Upward Bound students, which allowed them to foster connections with older students and other community members, was incredibly poignant to Peralta.
“I think for a lot of first-gen students, you get on campus and you have all these mixed feelings,” Peralta said. “You’re really excited, but you’re also scared; there’s not anybody in your family you can turn to. It’s really important to find that community, find those supports and those resources that are available to you, and for you to know that you’re not alone.”
In addition to the social, the FGLI Advisory Board facilitated an FGLI Coffee Chat, on Tuesday, Nov. 9. Fortson expressed that the event created a casual space where FGLI students can talk about any of their concerns.
“These students can also ask about anything related to the community of FGLI, what the FGLI Board is doing, [or] what QuestBridge is doing, because all of us would be there,” Fortson said.
The Winter Clothing Connections Drive was held on Friday, Nov. 12 at the Resource Center. The event aimed to provide winter clothing to FGLI students in a fun, collaborative, and social way.
“We wanted it to be more meaningful to students where if they had specific needs for the winter season, they could request items, and then donors, or whoever, could specifically look at the list and get something for that person,” Kang said.
The FGLI Advisory Board also hosted a Build Your Resume event at the Gordon Career Center on Saturday, Nov. 13. The event featured a resume-building presentation and collaboration with Peer Career Advisors and senior FGLI students.
“We wanted to create this event, even if people already have their resume, because it does benefit a lot,” Fortson said. “We don’t have professionals most of the time to help us build these resumes in high school, so it’s still beneficial, especially for FGLI students.”
The Week concluded with a FGLI Formal on Saturday, Nov. 13 at Russell House. The event included a photo booth and snacks in addition to music from a number of different genres and styles to ensure that everyone attending felt as comfortable as possible, according to Socioeconomic Status and Disability Resource Center Intern Alice Musabe ’22. Musabe explained that attendees were encouraged to wear whatever they were most comfortable in.
Fortson echoed Musabe’s sentiments, emphasizing the connotations of the word “formal.”
“We wanted to take back the word, what it means to be a ‘formal,’” Fortson said. “We want to let FGLI students know that whatever you come in with, however you feel comfortable, this is a safe space for students to come and dress and participate and be a part of that community with FGLI students.”
Members of the FGLI Advisory Board and the involved Resource Center Interns praised the week’s programming for its inclusion of many facets of campus culture, student resources, and types of events. The ability to include a number of different voices and resources created an environment open to all FGLI students and community members.
Planning for the week began in the fall when Colvin and Dean for Academic Equity, Inclusion, and Success April Ruiz brought in the FGLI Advisory Board and the Socioeconomic and Disability Interns from the Resource Center to assist with programming and alert the student body of the events.
“In terms of planning this event, I think once [the FGLI Advisory Board] knew that it was a thing, they were on board with trying to help,” Ruiz said. “I came to Wes knowing that I’d had these traditions at other places and was excited to contribute to whatever they were here. Each of us has taken on different pieces to make it happen.”
Colvin reiterated Ruiz’s sentiments, underscoring the value of collaboration in planning the events and highlighting the growing willingness to create new programs and initiatives for students.
“It’s the progression of people’s efforts and a lot of different ways to support first-generation, low-income students,” Colvin said.
Due to the pandemic, organizing a celebration for the last academic year proved to be difficult. The organizers felt pressure to ensure that the events were safe and complied with the University’s regulations.
“We value that school is open for us in person, so everything we do is compliant with the regulations, and we try to have as many events outside when it’s possible,” Musabe said.
In addition to affecting National FGLI Week programming, the pandemic has necessitated discussions around equity and access.
“COVID of course amplified the sorts of disparities that those folks who are either are FGLI or support FGLI students long knew to be true, and all of these things came into like very sharp relief during COVID,” Ruiz said. “I think that’s where a lot of universities are now, recognizing the need in new ways, recognizing what they were hoping to do before everybody had to stop, and now trying to determine where we go from here.”
According to Colvin, the programming was not limited solely to creating a sense of community, but rather included combating and illuminating many systemic inequalities.
“I think there is this piece around the stigma and internalized classism and the classism of environments that in some way this program series is trying to combat, and it’s not to say that that’s the only, or most important thing,” Colvin said. “I think there is an important thing to continue to make visible marginalized and underrepresented student populations and with that visibility [to] combat stigmatization.”
The expansion of National FGLI Day into a week-long celebration comes on the heels of a number of initiatives presented by members of the University to expand upon previous equity and inclusion-focused projects and create new programs. For example, the First Things First orientation program recently expanded to include more FGLI students and took place immediately before the start of classes. FTF has also grown to include a Next Steps program, a series of small-group conversations designed to provide FGLI students with extra resources and support. Similar to the events conducted throughout the National FGLI week, the conversations conducted as part of the FTF Next Steps program are designed to further bolster a sense of community among University students.
Additionally, according to Ruiz, the Office of Admission has started facilitating community conversations, which allow FGLI students to talk about their experiences in an honest, open, and accepting space.
Ruiz added that the University is currently undergoing a key transitional period with regards to programming for historically underrepresented groups on campus. This transition, however, is not solely limited to Wesleyan. Ruiz explained that many Ivy League institutions, Little Ivies, and NESCAC schools have been seeing increasingly more financial aid initiatives within the past 10 years. Similarly, these institutions, including Wesleyan, have been building up pre-orientation programs for first-generation students in the last five academic years.
While the efforts from individuals such as Colvin and Ruiz have been pivotal, the two also drew attention to the impact of the student body, both current and past.
“It is not just the work or the influence of us on the ground or the students, but the students who came before, who graduated, and administrators who came before who did what they could and then left, and got us to our current place,” Colvin said.
Efforts by current Resource Center interns and the FGLI Advisory Board have recently played a crucial role in promoting equity within the student body, all while pushing the University to create more effective and inclusive programs. To Kang, part of the beauty of the week-long series of events is to highlight the efforts of current students and possibly segue into future projects.
“Especially with COVID…as seniors, we have experienced some life on campus, but many of these FGLI students probably didn’t even have a chance to [do so],” Kang said.
Fortson hopes to continuously create, present, and enforce a sense of community among FGLI students, no matter how expansive and wide-ranging the community is.
“One of the things I want to point out is that yeah, the FGLI community is scattered, however, we have been trying to bridge together like the FTF and FGLI students who identify with it, and then also the QuestBridge scholars,” Fortson said. “We’re trying to bring that together so that there will be more of this community that isn’t so far-stretched. I think the biggest thing that I do want to highlight is the fact that FGLI students have a voice and their voice is very impactful for things that go on in this university or, like, the community, because a small group of people is not a complete representation of the whole community. It can be, but we’re better all together than we are with just a few.”
Therefore, members of the FGLI Advisory Board stressed that although the week-long celebration was a necessary expansion from National FGLI Day, the efforts to promote a safe and equitable environment for FGLI students is continuous. Students have been ceaselessly programming and working on projects that would better and support the whole of the FGLI community. To a certain extent, the week simply helped visualize some of these efforts.
“Knowing that they’re not alone, that there are other people, I think this week will visibly show that there are other students like them,” Kang said. “I think it’s a great opportunity, and, knowing that, I think it’s really important that this week, even after all these events, this is not the end, but this is just the beginning literally. There are always gonna be initiatives, and this community is going to be growing.”
Oliver Cope can be reached at [email protected].