Macalester College’s Efforts for First-Generation Students

Macalester College was recently highlighted in a news article for their programs for first-generation students, specifically for their Bonner Community Scholars program, a four-year program for Macalester low-income students. With 12 scholars in each class, the program provides a pre-freshmen retreat and programming throughout four years of college.

This isn’t the first article I have seen about first-generation students at Macalester. With first-generation students making up 11% of the student population, they are a growing segment on campus. In April, a piece was written about the life journey of Francesca Zepeda, a first-generation student at Macalester. She discusses how she bridges the gap between her background and privileged school-life.

In the same month, graduating senior Jocelyne Cardona penned a powerful column on her conflicted experience at Macalester. She writes:

“I hated Macalester,” Cardona admits, “but ultimately I’m happy because it’s been a learning experience for me. I’ve learned how to navigate spaces that were never meant to serve me. That is one of the things that I am taking away.”

Though she did have some support systems through a multicultural group and the Emerging Scholars program, she ultimately views higher education through a critical lens.

“I have learned that institutions of higher learning are not meant at all for students of color, [and] they are not meant for first-generation college students,” Cardona says, “and I am both of these things. That is already working against me. That did not ensure that I felt comfortable in this space.”

I always appreciate these types of narratives because the first-generation student experience often gets painted in general strokes that we lose the particularities of the student experience. These stories help illuminate the flaws with the way higher education institutions are structured and how they must accommodate changing demographics.

The most comprehensive article on Macalester first-generation students came this summer in Macalester Today, a university magazine. In the article, various first-generation Macalester students are highlighted. The article captures the nuances of their college experience, such as having to return home to work in an amusement park or declining invitations to take trips with friends.

Macalester’s efforts to support this population are also showcased in that article. In the fall of 2013, the school held an orientation program called “New to College” for first-gens and their parents. It was the first time an event of its kind had been held.

Last year, an equity and inclusion task force made up of students and staff met regularly to draft recommendations for improving the admissions process and the school experience for first-gens. The recommendations include enhancing the admissions website with bilingual resources, providing regular support groups, and identifying two staff members as first-gen counselors.

The Emerging Scholars Program is already helping some students. Similar to the Bonner Community Scholars program, it is designed to increase the number of historically underrepresented students at Macalester who participate in and receive opportunities in study abroad, fellowships, and scholarships, and to increase their application and admittance to graduate school programs.

Macalester seems to have a few strong programs for first-generation students (Bonner and Emerging Scholars), but most still seem rather exclusive. Updating the admissions website and orientation week events are a positive thing, but I’m still not seeing a central place where all first-gen students can find community. The addition of the first-gen staff members will create a focal point within the administration, which can help centralize first-gen student concerns.

Pieces of different issues are being addressed, which is a step in the right direction. To ensure more first-generation students take advantage of some of these resources and have the opportunity to build community, there needs to be more consistent events throughout the year. Launching initiatives is just the first step to actual integration and acknowledgment of a student identity within a college campus.

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