University of Vermont

CESS Symposium Focuses on Fulfulling Dreams of the First Generation College Student

The thought of attending college for many of the participants at the “Fulfilling Dreams for the First Generation College Student” symposium on March 13 at the Davis Center was inconceivable only a short time before arriving on campus. Yet despite facing numerous challenges, few expressed regrets about becoming the first in their family to attend college.

The symposium, sponsored by the College of Education and Social services and Committee on Diversity Initiatives, was attended by a broad mix of about 75 students from local colleges, alums and employees from across the region. A number of refugees from different countries shared stories about overcoming language barriers to become a first-generation college student, and what it took to be successful once enrolled. Others spoke about missing home and needing the support of their family, even from thousands of miles away.

“Going to college was hard, and I was scared at first,” said a young woman from Somalia in a breakout session that focused on family support. “Once I got to campus I felt better, but I was still very lonely. My parents called me a lot and supported me, and that really helped.”

The symposium featured five breakout workshops. “Identity Formation” explored the experiences of the first generation student from a diversity of perspectives; “Academic Readiness” examined the general readiness and academic skills that students must acquire to be college-bound; “Mentoring Continuum Part I (Getting There) and Part II (Staying There)” explored the mentoring processes that students engage in when they get in to higher education and what it takes to stay in higher education; and “Family Context” looked at the perspective of families as it relates to the first-generation college student.

Cynthia Reyes, associate professor in CESS who helped organize the symposium, said the goal of the CESS Committee on Diversity Initiatives of which she chairs is to generate interest, create awareness and offer new perspectives on a topic of community interest.

“What makes this conference so unique is that it draws from the Burlington and Winooski communities, particularly new Americans, so the audience participation includes both university and community members,” said Reyes, an expert on issues relating to diversity, access, equity, English Language Learners, and immigrant and refugee populations. “We also strive to bring people from different walks of life together for one afternoon and allow them to engage in authentic dialogue around common interests. In that respect, I think the conference is a success.”

Fayneese Miller, dean of the College of Education and Social Services, opened the symposium with some powerful comments about the university’s commitment to helping first generation students to be successful, and how they in turn help the university community as whole.   

“It’s not just rhetoric when we talk about creating opportunities for those who might need support or might not be from a certain class,” said Miller. “It’s part of who we are at UVM and what we believe in. We now have a standing committee on diversity. That’s real. We mean it when we say we want to make a difference and create opportunities for you, so you can take the bull by the horns and do something with it. When you do well, those of us behind you do well. You make it possible for us to continue to be successful.”

The symposium was developed by CESS and the Committee on Diversity Initiatives in collaboration with community members from the Burlington School District; Vermont Department of Education; Burlington Police Department; Vermont Multicultural Alliance for Democracy; Howard Center; King Street Center; Connecting Cultures/NESTT; Agency of Human Services’ Refugee Office; the Center for World Education, and the Center for Cultural Pluralism.