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Dartmouth College to expand program for first-generation students

  • Sofia Lackiram Program Coordinator for Community and Leadership Development (OPAL), leads a group of Datrmouth students in singing "Happy Birthday" to Zion Jones, as he records the event on his phone in the Office of Pluralism and Leadership on Friday, March, 1, 2019. Singing before digging into cake are Laura Logan, left, Jaden Oliveras, and Alexis Castillo all student coordinators at OPAL. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth sophomore Jaden Oliveras checks his mail on the way to lunch with friends on Friday, March, 1, 2019 in Hanover, N.H. Oliveras is the first in his family to attend college. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sophomore biology major Vi Nguyen meets with Tony Johns, the program coordinator for the First Year Student Enrichment Program (FYSEP) at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Nguyen and Johns were creating a survey for FYSEP members. The program helps empower first-generation students to thrive in the Dartmouth community, through events and peer mentoring. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sophomore biology major Vi Nguyen walks from one meeting to another at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Nguyen, of Atlanta, is one of about 600 first-generation students on campus and an active member of the First Year Student Enrichment Program. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/8/2019 9:55:55 PM
Modified: 3/8/2019 10:10:56 PM

HANOVER — Two years ago, Jaden Oliveras was in a cooking class at East Hartford High School in Connecticut, making jambalaya, when he got an important email.

He had spent the week convincing his teacher that adding even more spices would make the dish tastier, but the cooking and talking stopped when Oliveras read the message.

He had gotten into Dartmouth College.

It was a first: No one in his family had gone to college, and no one he knew of from the school had ever been accepted into an Ivy League school.

“I’d never seen anybody do it,” Oliveras said. “I thought it was out of reach.”

When he got to Dartmouth in fall 2017, Oliveras spent five days at a pre-orientation for first-generation students, getting a taste of what academic life would be like.

Oliveras, who plays club volleyball and loves to dance, met with professors, took a practice exam, and wrote an essay.

His high school teachers had made a point to tell their students that college professors would have tougher and higher expectations.

He was nervous about that as he sat next to a professor for the first time at the pre-orientation ceremony.

But then he noticed something about that professor.

“He had a booger in his nose,” Oliveras said. So he turned to the professor and let him know.

That moment was “huge for me, and understanding that I shouldn’t feel scared to talk (to professors),” he said. “They’re human, too.”

That type of pre-orientation and other programming for first-generation, low-income students at Dartmouth will expand over the next few years thanks to a $13 million gift from some Dartmouth alumni, including $10 million from George “Skip” Battle.

Battle, himself a first-generation student at Dartmouth, graduated in 1966 and went on to be a managing partner at Accenture and served on the boards of Netflix, Expedia and LinkedIn.

Battle could not be reached for this article but said in a Dartmouth news release, “I compare it to a bicycle race. Students who come from really good schools and whose parents attended college come to the starting line with momentum. Many first-generation students come to the starting line less prepared for the race to begin, so it takes them a while to build up speed.”

The money will go toward three areas: lengthening the First Year Student Enrichment Program pre-orientation; expanding available funding for emergencies and enrichment opportunities for first-generation students; and creating an academic peer coaching program to help students transition to college.

The expanded pre-orientation will start in the fall of 2020 and will be four weeks instead of five days.

“We need more time for academic preparation,” said Jay Davis, the director of the Dartmouth enrichment program. For example, students will practice skills that are “critical for the transition to college: writing, in-class discussions and problem-solving.”

The peer coaches would more than likely be first-generation as well. The positions would be paid and coaches would receive specific training. Currently, all mentors in the program are volunteers. Another part-time position would be created to supervise the peer coaches, according to Davis.

There are about 600 first-generation students at Dartmouth, which has about 4,400 undergraduates.

First-year students who are first-generation get an invitation to join the enrichment program, and most do. In some cases, though, the students may not realize they are the first in their families to go to college and may not apply for the enrichment program.

That’s one thing Oliveras wants to change.

He’s interning at the enrichment program, often planning events for students. Over the summer, he plans on calling all incoming first-generation students and their families to let them know what it means to be first-generation and what resources are available to them on campus.

While all first-year students are figuring out the transition to college, first-generation, low-income students face specific challenges, Davis said.

“It’s sort of not in the ‘groundwater’ at home,” Davis said. “Any number of things about the transition to college: about roommate issues, about what office hours are.”

Oliveras has always liked math. He even got the highest score possible on the AP Calculus exam. But his first math class at Dartmouth was tough.

“I thought math was everybody was already set on how to do it, you just have to do it,” he said, “but, that’s not what math is at all. If we have this problem, what’s the best way to fix it, instead of already having the route to do it.”

Then there’s the financial piece.

Dartmouth has need-blind financial aid, meaning that Oliveras got a full ride to the college. (Dartmouth last week announced that tuition, room and board next year will increase 3.9 percent to $73,578.)

But while the academic costs are generally covered for first-generation students, they face other expenses outside of textbooks and room and board.

Many already are figuring out ways to support their family back home, either financially or as the primary English speaker in the home. If there are emergencies, such as a death in the family, Davis said, finding the funds to get back can be difficult. Or whether it’s buying a new pair of glasses, a winter coat, or getting to a job interview, those stresses can add up.

“Getting the funds is huge because we have all the little things that stress out students that shouldn’t stress them out, that should be covered with this money,” Oliveras said. “You realize that you’re not having the same experience (as other students).”

Another first-generation Dartmouth student, Vi Nguyen, is a sophomore biology major from Atlanta. She wants to be a pediatrician, and in addition to doing research at the Geisel School of Medicine, she’s also a part of several health clubs on campus.

That means she’s taking a lot of lab classes, which she signs up for before the next term starts.

But the associated costs with each lab, like the lab fee, notebooks, books and other equipment, aren’t detailed for students before they register for classes.

“Be upfront about it,” Nguyen said. “I need to know in advance so that I can get these funds together.”

And then there’s navigating a college campus where 20 percent of the students come from the top 1 percent income bracket, and the median income on campus is about $200,000, according to a 2017 New York Timesreport.

“I didn’t think that being around people who were more affluent than me was going to be a problem,” Oliveras said. Some of his high school classmates came from families who were comfortable financially, but at Dartmouth, it was a different level of affluence. One that he picked up on by the number of students he met who’d gone to a private high school.

“If you’re paying $70,000 more than I did, what advantage does that give you in a class?” Oliveras said.

Nguyen said sometimes there’s a lack of awareness among some students, faculty and staff that classmates at Dartmouth have financial challenges.

At one health club meeting, the group watched a TED talk about poverty. The speaker discussed how some people at a grocery check-out will donate a dollar to some cause but then won’t donate to someone who’s homeless. Students split off into small groups to talk.

“Other students were like, ‘Yeah, sometimes I do forget about poverty in America, and that there is poverty here,’” Nguyen said.

She had to take a moment.

“I was trying to wrap my head around how people can forget about the poverty in America because literally, that was in my own backyard,” Nguyen said.

She often finds herself having to tell her story — immigrating from Vietnam, working hard at school, helping her parents with English — or explain her circumstances over and over again to peers or at resource centers on campus.

“It can be exhausting,” she said.

Nguyen said that could improve by having more administrators and professors who come from first-generation, low-income backgrounds.

“By having these incredible young people with the strengths they bring with them, by allowing them a better opportunity to become the leaders in our country, it’s going to change the kind of leadership that’s out there,” Davis said.

Through the enrichment program, both Oliveras and Nguyen have found a community where they don’t have to explain themselves.

“When we say something, it’s meaningful. It’s understood,” Oliveras said.

Every few weeks, there’s a community dinner, or a chance to skate on Occom Pond or learn-to-ski day at the Dartmouth Skiway.

“It’s like having my family on campus,” Nguyen said.

Daniela Vidal Allee can be reached at dallee@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.




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