When Octavio Castro ’19 was accepted to Bowdoin, the words on his letter of admission boasted of the College’s enthusiastic community, one bound together by intellectual growth, friendship and new horizons.
So he flew from Miami, landed in Brunswick, met with his academic advisor and began class. Then came a nagging question, prompted by hurried biology lectures and dark college house basements: had Admissions made a mistake?
“I personally have felt like it was a pity admission,” Castro said. “My brother came here, so that’s legacy, and being a student of color, first-gen, low-income—it felt like that’s why I was admitted.”
The College made sure Castro knew what on-campus resources were available to him. These included the Center for Learning and Teaching, the Center for Multicultural Life and Bowdoin Advising Program to Support Academic Excellence (BASE), a program designed to help first-generation students and students from under-resourced schools adjust to Bowdoin. However, Castro was used to doing things on his own. In high school, his independence had been a marker of success.
Castro’s narrative is familiar to many students for whom Bowdoin is hoping to open its doors; for first-generation, low-income students of color, graduating from Bowdoin can be a matter of survival.
“Especially in classes, [there was] a sense of being inferior, or not being welcomed or as prepared as other students. There were times when I would hear students calling their parents, asking for their help with writing a paper, or what classes to take,” Castro said. “Throughout my whole academic career, not just at Bowdoin, I was never able to reach out to my parents as a resource.”
This summer, Castro became one of three students to serve as a Residential Advisor for the Geoffrey Canada Scholars (GCS), an academic enrichment and college transition program in its inaugural year. The summer institute finds its namesake in educator and activist Geoffrey Canada ’74.
In July, 15 GCS students arrived on campus for a six-week institute. They took classes (not for credit), met with members of faculty and the administration and took day trips around New England. They had conversations about inclusion, race and class. They spent the night at the beach.
GCS operates under THRIVE, a college-wide initiative designed, according to its website, “to foster achievement, belonging, mentorship, and transition.” It incorporated pre-existing achievement programs, including BASE, Bowdoin Science Experience (BSE), Bowdoin Science Scholars (BSS), Chamberlain Scholars and Peer Mentoring. THRIVE was funded by a $5 million donation by Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings ’83.
“When I heard about [THRIVE], I really wished that I had had that,” Castro said.
Moving to Maine can be a tough sell. For first-generation, low-income students of color—a demographic minority at the College—it can feel especially far-fetched. Chuck Dorn, associate dean for academic affairs, says that THRIVE was born out of a desire to create an environment in which every student can succeed, regardless of background or prior experience.
As for the GCS students themselves, attending the summer institute provided a gateway to acclimate to the College before the rush of the fall semester. Journey Browne ’22, a GCS student from Harlem, New York, said that the institute provided her “a space to call my own and people who I know are really in my corner.”
“As cliché as that sounds, l don’t think anybody would know how much it means to a first-generation college student,” she said. “Because I can’t call home and tell my mom what I’m experiencing, because she’s never been to college. She’s just going to tell me to figure it out, that it’s going to be OK, that I can always come home. But having people who are first-generation college students, who have been through facilitated programs like these, it does make a difference.”
While the THRIVE advisory board is in the early stages of examining the program’s inaugural year and making recommendations for the future, one GCS student’s experiences already reveal the complex racial dynamics that occur when students transition from a racially diverse environment, like the GCS summer institute, to the Bowdoin student body, which is majority-white.
“It’s just such a shock,” said Lynn Nguyen ’22, a GCS student from the Bay Area who identifies as a first-generation college student and an Asian woman of color but not of a low-income background. “At first, I felt like I didn’t belong in GCS. Now I feel like I don’t belong at Bowdoin. Because I fit some of the categories and not the others … even though I am technically a person of color, our experiences are completely different.”
“For a long time, I thought, ‘do I even belong in GCS?’ Because the conversations they were having were really hard, I couldn’t really identify with them.”
Despite this, Nguyen said she feels grateful for the GCS experience for its introduction to faculty, staff and other resources she might not be aware of otherwise.
“The goal is for [GCS students] to have a community, particularly at times when they will feel like they are the only one in the room with this identity,” said THRIVE director Jessica Perez. “They can have this group that shares many of these experiences, but it’s also not just for them to be with that group.”
Regardless of how major a part GCS plays in a student’s sense of community at Bowdoin, the program nevertheless provides an introduction to resources at the College and plays an important role as an initiative toward greater diversity on campus.
“We know that the most successful students at Bowdoin use resources,” said Janet Lohmann, dean of students. Lohmann was involved with the creation of BASE alongside Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Liaison for Advising Sara Dickey and Associate Director of Student Wellness Programs Melissa Quinby, who formerly served as interim dean for first-year students. “I think having more students who are diverse on our campus, in and of itself, creates a sense of belonging for other students. The optics of being able to walk across campus and see somebody who looks like you, I think really helps this community.”