Katelyn Montalvo has spearheaded the First-Generation Student Council at Tufts University. Below is a Q and A with Katelyn about her work and hopes for the future.
When did your interest in first-generation students start? Does your involvement stem from personal experience?
My interest in first-generation college students started when my Dean was holding an event that was going to give a basic breakdown of what you needed to understand about attaining your degree (credits, majors etc.), so I decided to go. When I went, I also met resourceful people who worked in Dowling (our main building for academics). One lady by the name of Wanda Montanez worked in Dowling and was going to put together a first-generation college student council. This was the first time I ever heard of that label. I decided to fill out the application that was required to join the council. I considered myself a first-generation college student because I was definitely alone trying to figure out the college process and how to succeed in college. My mother attained her B.A. at a community college back at home (New York City) but she was raising me at the same time and wasn’t as involved in her college. I was the first in my family to go away to college to a prestigious four-year university and had to figure this out all on my own. This is why I consider myself a first-generation college student.
How did the Tufts First-generation student council start? Was the administration supportive?
Wanda gathered a handful of first-generation college students on campus to create this council my second semester in college. Upon returning my sophomore year Wanda had told us that she was let go by Tufts. The council would be taken over by a Dean. We met once with this Dean but everyone was so involved with other activities on campus and the council had no real structure that it just fell apart. Second semester of my sophomore year, Provost David Harris came to talk to a scholars program that I am a part of (The Tisch Scholars for Citizenship and Public Service). When Provost Harris spoke he addressed his college transition experience as a first-generation college student. He inspired me and I spoke to him after his lecture. I told him about the council and my idea of having a panel of first-generation college faculty, staff and current students to talk about their identities. He was very supportive and encouraged me to follow through with my idea and volunteered to be on the panel. The panel was held that semester as a kick off to what the council will be like and it was super successful. My junior year (last year) was the first full year of the council.
Can you describe the work of the council and how many students are involved? What are the council’s major initiatives?
The Council is a support network for first-generation college students on campus. We are currently trying to build a social network for students by providing social activities like dinners, ice cream social and the like. Last year, we did more events for first-generation college students focusing on career services and financial aid. We also worked with college access visits at Tufts to talk about college being an option for after high school graduation. We are now trying to start off a faculty/staff mentor program for first-generation college students and an alumni network. We meet weekly and are also trying to create a space for our voices to be heard. Last year, we had a photo campaign to bring faces to the first-generation college student community at Tufts. Through this photo campaign we had faculty, staff, students and even graduate students come together.
Have you been happy with the council’s work? What other things would you like for it to accomplish?
I‘ve been super happy with the Council’s work. The administration recognizes us a lot and this year I have been getting a lot of emails talking about potential connections or articles to be written about the council’s work. This is giving us more publicity and recognition from the administration. Now that we have this support we need to build our student support and really start asking what students want. Since this is my senior year I would really love to see this continue in other leadership. I would love to see mentorship happening with students, faculty/ staff and even dialogues happening with other campuses.
What other programs exist on campus for first-generation students? How comprehensive are they?
There are other programs such as BLAST (Bridge to liberal arts success at Tufts), BEST (Bridge to engineering success at Tufts), PRISE (Promoting Retention In Science and Engineering) and other extra curriculars that address first-generation college needs but not so explicitly. The bridge programs are exclusive to students selected. The council is open to any student who self identifies as a first-generation college student.
Before the first-generation council, was there any type of programming for first-generation students or at least other students advocating for this population?
I don’t believe there were other programs addressing first-generation college students and I’m not sure if there were students advocating for this since I was a freshman when this started. I feel like there was some programming or interest since the council was in the making.
Would you say Tufts is doing enough for first-generation students? What other programs and initiatives would you like to see?
I would like to see or hear about initiatives in training staff about addressing first-generation college students or being included in policies or our strategic plans. I don’t really feel like Tufts is doing enough. I think Tufts students are doing a lot but the administration doesn’t really address first-generation college students unless it is through the council, which is a student initiative. We are not seen on campus as an identity and I think the next step is having a more foundational position to support all first-generation college student on campus, a pre-orientation program or a seminar for first-generation college students to be able to apply or indicate interest in besides the administration exclusively selecting students.
As you prepare to graduate, what are your hopes for the future of the council? Is there momentum around the first-generation student identity at Tufts?
There is definitely momentum around the first-generation student identity at Tufts. I would love to see the council grow to partnerships and mentorships (across faculty/staff, alumni, organizations working with first-generation college students in high school and other campuses). I’m not sure where it will go but I just hope it grows and molds to what first-generation college students need through our growth through college.
To learn more about the council, read a recent article about its work.