First-Generation Fellows Cross the Stage at SAIC’s Commencement

First-Generation Fellows Cross the Stage at SAIC’s Commencement

First-Generation Fellows Cross the Stage at SAIC’s Commencement

Faculty and staff sitting on the Commencement stage

by Sophie Lucido Johnson (MFA 2017)

As this year’s graduating class walked across the stage at the Wintrust Arena to celebrate the culmination of their years of study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a few students had a particularly special designation. On May 21, 2023, for the first time, students who participated in SAIC’s First-Generation Fellows Program were among the graduates.

The program was started in 2019 as a way to support incoming SAIC students whose parents or guardians did not graduate from college—a population that makes up nearly 20 percent of the School’s undergraduate student body. The program provides, among other resources, structured mentor support, on-campus employment, workshops, and peer engagement opportunities in order to foster a sense of belonging. It’s a critical initiative for President Elissa Tenny, a first-generation student herself. Over the past several years, more than $1.4 million has been raised to support the program. 

Steven Hou, a queer, Chicago-born child of Chinese immigrants, came to SAIC on a full-tuition scholarship. 

“Without loans, I could invest all my energy into my academic life,” he said. “I immediately used the School’s interdisciplinary curriculum to try out new art practices.”

Hou initially planned to study sculpture and fiber, but took a few writing classes and fell in love. The opportunities provided by the First-Generation Fellowship Program allowed Hou to expand into a medium he hadn’t previously considered.

Hou also met other first-generation students at the social gatherings the School provided. 

“Meeting other first-generation students coming from a similar background was immensely important for developing my sense of community and developing confidence in that part of my identity,” Hou said.

One of those students was Ana Rodriguez, a first-generation student from New Jersey. She also spoke to the importance of meeting other first-generation students through the program. 

Students in graduation robes hold a diploma

“One thing I truly appreciate is the understanding we have for and of one another. Many of us, if not all of us, come from similar backgrounds. We can relate to life experiences and situations and have been able to find community in relatability and companionship,” Rodriguez said, adding, “I think it is incredibly important, especially for first-gen students, to be able to foster a comfortable, safe, and reassuring environment while we are experiencing the unsureness of college.” 

Both Hou and Rodriguez took advantage of the on-campus employment opportunities offered by the program. Hou worked as a gallery assistant with SITE Galleries, a resident advisor at Jones Hall, a box office assistant at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and a teaching assistant for a Core Studio class; Rodriguez worked in Campus Life and Academic Advising.

Rodriguez said that her job in advising helped her build relationships with other first-generation students. 

“I think that’s a great thing about on-campus employment: not only do you get experiences, but since they always place new first-gen students in these departments to work, you’re always meeting others like you,” she said.

The on-campus job experience has helped prepare Rodriguez and Hou for what comes after they graduate alongside more than 1,000 of their peers.

“I feel a sense of liberation in graduation,” Hou said. “I'm excited to use all of my skills to make the world more equitable and joyous through art. But right now I'm just overjoyed to be with everyone at the Commencement and to celebrate each other's accomplishments.”