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On-campus event brings together first-gen students

October 16, 2020

On Saturday, the Student Center for Multicultural Life hosted a retreat for first-generation (first-gen) first-year students living on campus. The event, which lasted the better part of the day, took place in Farley Field House, where the 26 first-year participants, six first-generation upperclassmen discussion leaders and staff and faculty who participated in a panel and delivered presentations were able to safely gather while maintaining social distance. Students then had the opportunity to come together for an unstructured evening at the Bowdoin Outing Club on Monday.

“This first-gen retreat, it was amazing—I knew a lot of people ahead of time, but I met so many new people that were just really amazing first-year students who I could see myself being friends with,” said Ereny Morcos ’24 in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It’s been hard finding those people because of how limited we are and how restricted everything is [on campus].”

Assistant Dean of Admissions Kyra Green, who has taken on some responsibilities from former Director of the Student Center for Multicultural Life Benjamin Harris, organized the retreat. For her, the main goal of the event was to help first-gen students develop a sense of belonging.

“My big goal was definitely to hammer home that point of belonging to remind them that they were chosen to be here, which I think my admissions hat definitely helped me say with true authority,” Green said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I also wanted them to walk away with an understanding that asking for help doesn’t make you weak but helps you get the most out of [the Bowdoin] experience.”

Upperclassmen mentors and staff and faculty panelists were a key part of this mission. The day started with a presentation from staff at Counseling Services, who talked with the students about imposter syndrome. Students then heard from a panel of Bowdoin staff and faculty who are former first-gen college students, after which they spoke with a panelist, an upperclassman and a few other first-gen first years in small groups. After a catered lunch, they participated in a conversation about building healthy relationships.

For Zack Reynolds ’24, the morning panel was the highlight of the day.

“[Students] just asked [the panelists] questions about anxiety and imposter syndrome—stuff like that,” he said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “And getting to hear their responses and seeing how they deal with it, even being adults, and that it’s something that affects everyone, not just me, was nice.”

Reynolds had struggled with aspects of imposter syndrome and the hidden curriculum, which Green also hoped the retreat and subsequent first-gen programming would help address.

“The hidden curriculum at Bowdoin—you’re expected to know this thing, but no one is telling you how to go about doing it,” Green said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.

Reynolds, who is from Alabama, experienced the challenges of Bowdoin’s hidden curriculum when he tried to go about preparing for his first northern winter. He was unable to find a store near his home that sold warm clothing over the summer, and he had to wait until he arrived on campus to secure funding from Bowdoin for a winter coat. He noticed that many of his core group mates had already known what to pack for the winter or even already owned sufficient attire and gear.

The panel also resonated with Morcos, who experienced imposter syndrome in high school and expected to encounter it again at Bowdoin.

“Already, as soon as I set foot on campus, I was like ‘ahh…do I not belong here?’” she said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.

She said that hearing from staff and faculty about how imposter syndrome manifests in their lives was encouraging.

“I just really appreciated that they came out and shared all those things with us,” she said. “It really made us feel like ‘Woah, we’re not alone,’ and people of color who are professors and are super successful now, we see them—we can be them.”

Morcos has found community with other students on campus, including other Black women on campus through an Instagram group chat. But she said the retreat—particularly a conversation about healthy relationships led by Associate Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity and Title IX Director Benje Douglas—helped her reflect on the importance of having an idea of what she wants out of relationships with other people. She is open to getting to know people from a variety of backgrounds, but she also wants to have a support network of people from similar backgrounds, including first-gen students.

“That, to me, is a support network—people who are like you, but not like you too much, but they’re similar enough to you that they understand where you’re coming from,” she said. “They understand why maybe you’ll leave campus for a semester, you’ll take a leave of a sense to help your family out with something. They’ll understand—being a low-income student … why you can’t always go out, because you’re barely covering tuition.”

Reynolds also found it comforting to talk with people from similar backgrounds, including a student who is also from a rural area and participated in the same agriculture-oriented extracurricular club.

“Not everyone here has experienced that kind of thing,” he said. “Just meeting someone who I can talk to about stuff like that and have them understand was nice.”


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