Helen Mayer ’17 says she arrived at Smith four years ago not really knowing the academic ropes.
Since neither of her parents had earned a college degree, “I had no idea what college was like,” Mayer says. “I didn’t know what it meant to take a seminar or how to talk to my professors or navigate the resources that were available to me.”
Mentoring and other support she received through Smith’s Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering and Sciences program —as well as from fellow Smithies—helped Mayer navigate her way to a major in philosophy with the goal of attending medical school.
“Having those resources and relationships made all the difference,” says Mayer, who is a member of Smith’s First-Generation Student Alliance. “I was able to identify what I wanted to pursue as a liberal arts student.”
A desire to share those lessons with fellow first-generation students led Mayer to organize the inaugural Five College First Generation Conference in 2016. Next week, Mayer and fellow members of Smith’s first-generation alliance will host the second annual conference. The event takes place Friday, April 7, from noon to 4 p.m. in the Campus Center Carroll Room, and admission is free to students, faculty and staff. Lunch will be provided. The deadline to register is Saturday, April 1.
The gathering, which includes workshops and discussion sessions, will focus on ideas for helping first-generation students thrive, says Mayer, who is serving as conference chair. Participants will be encouraged to create action plans for improving existing supports and increasing awareness of issues facing first-generation students on the Five College campuses.
The conference follows Smith’s third annual Visibility Week, a celebration of first-generation identity at the college. This year’s events included a first-gen faculty panel, digital storytelling and tea with President Kathleen McCartney, who is the first in her family to earn a college degree.
McCartney’s leadership has helped expand Smith’s ongoing efforts to support students who are new to the college experience, says Assistant Dean of Students Marge Litchford—who also shares a first-generation background.
“President McCartney has made us feel like we’re all in this together,” Litchford says. “I get a lot of calls and a lot of interest in what we’re doing for first-gen students.”
Supports for first-generation Smithies—who make up 17 percent of the college’s current student population—begin as soon as they arrive on campus, with a special orientation program.
In recent years, Litchford says, awareness of the needs of first-generation students has grown among faculty and staff—as has the confidence of students who come to Smith without prior knowledge of academic traditions.
“We’ve gone from people being timid about identifying themselves as first gen to seeing first-gen students finding joy in that identity,” Litchford says.
Mayer says raising awareness is also the goal of the Five College conference—an event she hopes will continue after she graduates.
“It’s important for us to have these conversations,” she says. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m really proud of the work our alliance has done to ensure that first-gen students can take advantage of every opportunity.”