GradFest(Luke)
Photo: Luke Yeagley

In the latest series of new programming for first-generation students, several Penn-affiliated organizations are establishing unprecedented intentional resources for first-generation graduate students this semester.

As a kickoff event to introduce new first-generation graduate student programming, the Graduate Student Center and Career Services cohost the “First-Gen Welcome Reception for Graduate Students” on Oct. 17. About two dozen Penn-staffed organizations, as well as student and affinity groups spoke about the resources available for graduate students who self-identify as first-generation.

First-generation graduate students can include those who are the first in their families to attend undergraduate and graduate school, as well as those whose parents might have earned undergraduate degrees, but did not earn graduate degrees. 

Staff members of the Grad Center and Career Services described new initiatives to support first-generation graduate students, which they plan to implement this year. One of the scheduled events is a roundtable discussion where postdoctoral students, graduate students and faculty will share stories about what it means to be first-generation. 

“We at the Grad Center want to bring the students together, socially, to support one another, to share, to engage,” Grad Center Director Shaina Adams-El Guabli said.

Adams-El Guabli added that the Grad Center is seeking to implement a wide spectrum of programs that provide social, academic and financial literacy support. 

In 2015, several Penn undergraduates founded Penn First as a student organization aiming to build a community among Penn first-generation, low-income students. A year later, Penn opened the FGLI Program in the Greenfield Intercultural Center.

Several student groups exist to support first-generation graduate students, but the welcome reception on Tuesday marked the beginning of the University's formal attempts to provide targeted and structured programming for this group of students.  

Last semester, three Penn Law School students created the First Generation Professionals group to provide networking and mentorship opportunities for first-generation law students. 

First-year Master of Public Health student Carlos Carmona, who is also a 2017 College graduate, said he thought there were no resources available for first-generation graduate students when he sub-matriculated into the MPH program this fall. 

Carmona, who is both a first-generation undergraduate and graduate student, said he would like to see programs that educate prospective first-generation graduate students on the experiences of being graduate students at specific universities.

First-year neuroscience Ph.D. student and 2015 Dartmouth College graduate Ilenna Jones agreed, adding that she would like to see extensive interaction between the first-generation undergraduate and graduate communities. 

“I feel like at every point of my life, whenever there was someone who could model the type of life I could imagine for myself, that just made that path more clear,” Jones said.

Photo: Camille Rapay

GIC Director Valerie De Cruz announced during the welcome reception that GIC is starting a small mentoring initiative where graduate and professional students can volunteer to support undergraduate freshman students.

For Jones, her experience as a first-generation undergraduate at Dartmouth was different from her graduate experience in that there was a “twofold challenge” involved in finding a place that she belonged to, on top of grappling with the rigorous academic requirements which she often felt unprepared for. 

“For grad school, I feel like the challenge is the giant thing that is academic, responsibility and freedom. You think you know what you need to do, but you’re never sure,” she said. “For undergrad, there is always someone there to say, ‘No, no, this is what you do: Aim for an A, [but] if you get a B that’s fine.’”

De Cruz said GIC is working with the Grad Center to determine the similarities and differences between the needs of graduate and undergraduate first-generation students.

The resources that the FGLI Program provides for first-generation undergraduates include a textbook library, meal assistance for students who remain on campus during breaks and summer storage at a reduced cost. 

Adams-El Guabli said the Grad Center is working to figure out how to expand the GIC textbook library so that it would better service students from different graduate schools. Starting this semester, the Grad Center has also become a collection site for food donations to the GIC food pantry.

“It’s been really exciting to see all of the undergraduate [first-generation, low-income] support on campus, and we wanted to replicate some of that for graduate students or think about different ways to support them,” she added. “Because, of course, these are areas of needed support that don’t vanish once you become a graduate student.” 

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