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Members of the first graduating class of FirstGen Presidential Fellows pose with Bentley President E. LaBrent Chrite.
Members of Bentley’s first graduating class of FirstGen Presidential Fellows pose with President E. LaBrent Chrite. (Photos by Maddie Schroeder)

Among the members of Bentley’s Class of 2024 is an exemplary group of 14 students: The first-ever graduates of the university’s FirstGen Presidential Fellows program.

Introduced in 2020, the prestigious leadership development program is designed specifically for high-achieving first-generation college students, defined as those whose parents or guardians do not have a bachelor’s degree. It covers the full cost of attendance —including tuition and fees, standard room and board costs, and an allowance for books, supplies and other expenses — for all four years for each participant.  

According to Associate Provost for Student Success Jane De León Griffin, director of the program, navigating college can be a unique experience for students and families less familiar with higher education. “Transitioning from high school to college can be intimidating for any student, but can be especially challenging for first-generation college students who haven’t inherited the same institutional know-how from their families that multi-gen peers have,” she explains. Bentley’s program acknowledges this and provides customized resources and support — including faculty mentorship, professional development workshops and social gatherings — that help “cultivate a sense of community that shows students they not only belong at Bentley but will thrive here.”  

Headshot of Jane De León Griffin
Our FirstGen Presidential Fellows Program helps cultivate a sense of community that shows students they not only belong at Bentley but will thrive here.
Jane De León Griffin
Associate Provost for Student Success


When Harry C. Bentley (a first-generation student himself) opened the doors to his eponymous School of Accounting and Finance in 1917, most of his students were from working-class families with no experience of higher education; he also welcomed students from religious and racial minorities and offered evening as well as daytime classes to accommodate students with full-time jobs. More than a century later, the university that bears his name continues to expand access and opportunity to any student seeking to improve their lives — and their families’ futures — with a college degree.

While first-generation students have always been a vital part of the campus community, Bentley took the step of formalizing its institutional commitment to improving their experiences and advancing their outcomes in 2020. That year, the university debuted its First Falcons program, which recognizes and celebrates first-generation students through pinning and cording ceremonies and other special events. At the same time, Bentley unveiled two different scholarship programs: FirstGen Presidential Fellows and BentleyFirst, which covers the difference between tuition costs at Bentley and UMass Amherst and offers first-generation Massachusetts residents a private university education for the price of a state institution. More recently, the university established its own chapter of Tri Alpha, a national honor society for first-generation students, and introduced First Falcons Mentorship Program, a partnership between Deloitte Consulting and Bentley’s nationally recognized Pulsifer Career Development Center, which also offers a dedicated first-generation Career Community.

Collectively, these programs help Bentley recruit and retain “students who will broaden perspectives and create a truly diverse environment that reflects the world we will live and work in,” Griffin says. “As future business leaders, our first-gen students are also poised to be a force for positive change in the organizations they join when they leave Bentley.”

First GenPresidential Fellows and graduating seniors Angel Calle, Anthony Arias, Kiara Pichardo and Ariana Pena-Herrara toast each other with champagne flutes emblazoned with the Bentley logo.
FirstGen Presidential Fellows (from left) Angel Calle ’24, Anthony Arias ’24, Kiara Pichardo ’24 and Ariana Pena-Herrara ’24 celebrate after delivering their Signature Work Presentations.


Among these programs, FirstGen Presidential Fellows is unique in its emphasis on leadership development and academic excellence. Students are encouraged to participate in campus organizations and required to complete a Signature Work Presentation in their senior year, Griffin explains, that “connects their academic studies to relevant community issues and global problems” reflected in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Characterized by the U.N. as a “global blueprint for peace and prosperity,” the SDGs identify 17 specific challenges — including systemic poverty, gender inequality and climate change — that must be addressed and eliminated to ensure an equitable and sustainable future for all.  

FirstGen Presidential Fellows are asked to reflect upon their classroom experiences and extracurricular activities — including internships, study abroad opportunities and engagement with the Bentley Service Learning and Civic Engagement Center (BSLCE) — and link them with corresponding SDGs to answer a quintessentially Bentley question: “How can businesses, organizations and/or individuals be a force for positive change in the world?” Seniors in the program recently shared their Signature Work Presentations with Bentley President E. LaBrent Chrite, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Paul Tesluk, their professors and peers and other members of the campus community. 

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Overall, FirstGen Presidential Fellows expressed gratitude for having opportunities to think deeply and critically about global sustainability issues during their time at Bentley. They also shared how learning about the SDGs has profoundly influenced their own lives, both personally and professionally.  

“Being able to see the world through a more sustainable and socially responsible lens, as opposed to just a business-oriented or profit-oriented lens, was so impactful,” Nayeli Franco ’24, an Accounting major from Trenton, New Jersey, observed. A member of Bentley’s Honors Program, she described how the SDGs inspired her capstone research project, which explored the use of blockchain to address social justice issues. “Applying a business-focused technology to serve the greater good was really appealing to me, and I was able to generate some positive results,” she explains. Her research, which received a Best Honors Capstone Award, helped Franco understand that “I can apply the knowledge I’ve gained at Bentley to raise awareness of inequities and empower others.”

Other FirstGen Presidential Fellows extolled the community service opportunities offered by the BSLCE. Ariana Pena-Herrera ’24, a Boston native majoring in Marketing with a minor in Management, shared her experience mentoring elementary-aged students through an after-school program in Waltham. “Through our work, we’ve been able to promote their mental well-being and boost their academic confidence,” she said. “The students have expressed so much curiosity about what college is like and constantly ask us questions.” For Pena-Herrera, it’s been incredibly rewarding to know that “our presence is opening their eyes to the fact that what they see in their schools and community is not all that they can be, that higher education is attainable even if they come from lower-income or marginalized communities.”  

For many, understanding how businesses can advance global sustainability issues has been a game-changer. “I wasn’t aware of the SDGs before I came to Bentley, but now they’re always in the back of my mind,” Brianna Culcay ’24, an Accounting major from Ossining, New York, shared. “Now, when I consider a job opportunity or internship, the first thing I look at is the company’s approach to the SDGs. What actions are they taking? How are they trying to make the world a better place? Being a ‘force for good’ is something Bentley has really instilled in me, and it’s something I’ll continue to have on my mind as my career progresses.”

Headshot of Nayeli Franco
Seeing the world through a more sustainable and socially responsible lens was so impactful ... I know can apply the knowledge I’ve gained at Bentley to raise awareness of inequities and empower others.
Nayeli Franco ’24
FirstGen Presidential Fellow


In addition to a rigorous and well-rounded business education, the FirstGen Presidential Fellows program offers students a supportive and enriching campus community. “I chose Bentley because I wanted a smaller university that had a diverse range of opportunities for campus involvement,” says Dayana Gamboni ’24, a Marketing major with a minor in Psychology from Lynn, Massachusetts. From becoming a peer leader in the Multicultural Center to serving on the executive board of Coming Full Circle, an affinity group for female-identifying students and alumnae of color and allies, “I’ve participated in multiple organizations over the last four years and have loved every one of them,” she shares. “These activities helped make Bentley a home away from home for me.”

For Judaea Whittingham ’24, a Computer Information Systems (CIS) major with a minor in Marketing from Albany, New York, developing close bonds with other FirstGen Presidential Fellows was critical to her success over the last four years. “There’s a lot of loneliness you face as a first-gen student, particularly when your parents can’t understand what you’ve achieved or why it matters because they never went to college,” she explains. “But my peers and the Bentley faculty and staff involved with the program were there in those moments to help celebrate my accomplishments and remind me to be proud of myself.

“It’s so important for universities to have programs like this,” Whittingham continues, noting that first-generation college students are nearly three times as likely as their peers to drop out of school. “My FirstGen Presidential Fellows family was there to provide the advice and support I needed to make informed decisions that would best benefit me. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”  

Antony Arias ’24, an Economics-Finance major from Revere, Massachusetts, who will be continuing his academic journey as a student in Bentley’s MBA program next fall, agrees. “My time here has been filled with countless wonderful moments shared with my closest friends, many of whom I met through the FirstGen Presidential Fellows program,” he says. “As I reflect on the past four years, I’m thrilled to realize that these friendships have evolved beyond mere companionship; they’re like family to me.” 

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