by Adrienne Samuels Gibbs
College is a time of beginnings: new friends, new classes, even a new town. So much change at once can feel more daunting when you’re a first-generation college student. When SAIC student Leana Yonan’s family fled Iraq in the 1980s, they didn’t know she would be the first in their family to attend college; that Yonan chose to pursue art and design studies was even more surprising to them.
“After I received my scholarship, it confirmed to me that I belong here, that I wasn’t just a random selection. It was an active choice to let me continue my art practice and my academics here,” she says.
Yonan isn’t the only first-generation student who has, at times, struggled to navigate an unfamiliar environment. Studies show that first-generation students face challenges that their peers whose parents attended college do not. For instance, navigating college financing or finding a balance between work and study can cause feelings of isolation that become difficult to overcome without a network of support.
To assist students like Yonan, SAIC developed First-Generation Fellows, a pilot program that aims to create a stronger peer network for these students, who make up nearly 20 percent of SAIC’s undergraduate and graduate community. Elissa Tenny, president of SAIC and once a first-generation student herself, saw an opportunity to better support these students, so she contacted former Art Institute of Chicago Board of Trustees Chair Robert Levy and his wife Diane to help fund the program. Launched in the fall of 2019 after two years of research to identify challenges unique to this group, the program supports initiatives such as student employment, mentorship, workshops, and scholarship opportunities.
“We spent time learning about our student population and found ways to provide better support,” says Deborah Martin, dean of student life at SAIC. Martin and her team seek to identify areas of opportunity to create or strengthen a sense of community among first-generation students. “For example, we learned through data that if a student works on campus, they are much more likely to be successful than if they don’t. Part of the reason is that they’re creating a connection with other people, they’re feeling this sense of belonging.” But there are other issues: Sometimes a student’s family doesn’t understand why they are choosing a career in the arts or the doors it can open for their children.
“After I received my scholarship, it confirmed to me that I belong here; that I wasn’t just a random selection. ”
Paul Jackson, associate dean for undergraduate studies, says, “What we’ve heard from some students is that their families don’t immediately appreciate the variety of outcomes students achieve coming from a degree focusing on the arts. Unlike programs which focus on specific career outcomes, like pre-law or pre-med, a degree in art and design can lead to so many different places, and that opportunity can create some feelings of uncertainty with parents, especially those who did not attend college themselves. It takes courage, particularly if you’re the first in your family to go to college, to pursue your passion. You gain a lot of valuable skills along the way and because of this, there are many paths toward a career.”
Reggie Williamson, a senior who is graduating in May, had to explain their choice to their family. “We had to take my grandma to the museum and let her see it’s not just arts and crafts,” Williamson says. “At first, your parents might not have any context for what you’re doing, but then you go home and you help them develop the language for it.”
Williamson, who is from Maryland, had parental help throughout the application process for SAIC. But even upon arrival, and even with a scholarship, managing the transition was difficult. That’s where programs like First-Generation Fellows come in, he says. “I think first-generation programs are important,” says Williamson. “I’ve done a lot with student leadership because the transition between wherever you’re coming from to these college spaces can be really jarring. College is 50 percent community building. These programs are definitely important.”
Students benefit from hearing these stories and seeing these successes, says faculty member Salvador Jiménez-Flores, who is one of more than 160 first-generation SAIC faculty and staff to sign an open letter expressing support for first-generation students.
“It is very important that the faculty members and administration reflect the student body we serve and the city that we live in. This benefits all students and this tells the students, ‘I am represented, I am heard and I can do those jobs too,’” says Jiménez-Flores, who teaches ceramics and came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 15.
For alum Angel Otero (MFA 2007, MFA 2009), simply being in an environment that embraced and helped him realize he could make art for a living is the magic of SAIC.
“I wanted to be an artist,” says Otero, whose parents can now tell their friends to check out their son’s larger-than-life installations being featured in the New York Times. “I quit my job against my family’s will, and I started making my moves to go to Chicago.”
Otero’s experience juggling emotional and financial challenges highlight why different types of support are key, says Yonan, especially when navigating something like a final assignment or even a cross-country move to a location that requires something as deceptively simple as a new winter wardrobe.
“Like for example, my friend just said to me, ‘I didn’t do my FAFSA; I gave it to my family,’” says Yonan. “But that’s a great privilege. I can’t do that. My mom [read the FAFSA] and asked me, ‘What does this big word mean?’ I and other first-generation students feel this pressure. If I mess up this application, it’s on me.”
That’s a lot of responsibility to shoulder as a young adult, say the students, but their courage and resiliency is why they belong.