‘It’s a Life Changer’
New Program Welcomes Talented First-Generation Students
As the demographic face of America changes, so too are college student populations. In fact, over the next decade, enrollment demographics in higher education are expected to take a seismic shift toward minority and first-generation students, putting these often underrepresented populations in the college recruitment spotlight.
“Within the coming five to 15 years, the majority of college-bound students are going to be first-generation,” says Jane Griffin, PhD, associate dean of Arts and Sciences and faculty director of Bentley’s new FirstGen Presidential Fellows program.
Now more than ever, how colleges handle this change will determine their future. Developing programs like the FirstGen Fellows — which hopes to attract high-ability students with mentoring, networking and career development opportunities as well as a full scholarship — could prove to be a difference maker.
Brian Williams ’24 grew up in Windsor, Conn., part of a family that came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. A guidance counselor first planted the idea of college in his head, and his parents were on board when he made his decision.
“My parents have always encouraged me to do what I want to do,” he says.
As he had shown an early interest in business, Bentley was always among Williams’s top choices. And his performance in high school — he graduated sixth in his class — put him on the radar when Bentley was choosing its first class of FirstGen Fellows. When he changed his phone number this past winter, however, the school had trouble contacting him with the news.
“One morning my mother said there was a call from Waltham,” says Williams. “So I thought, ‘That must be Bentley.’ When I listened to the voicemail, it was an admission counselor telling me I had been awarded this scholarship. But it was the last day. I almost missed my opportunity.”
In Windsor, Black residents comprise more than a third of the population, so attending a predominantly white college would be different.
“I know that, here, we’re the minorities,” says Williams. “That was one thing that I was a little worried about. But even before I came here Bentley made it clear how diverse they are and how diverse they want to be. They not only embrace diverse cultures, but they also really celebrate them.”
Judaea Whittingham ’24 always thought she’d be a doctor. By junior year and AP Biology, however, things changed.
“We dissected a pig and I almost passed out.”
Her guidance counselor at the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, New York, told her not to worry, assuring her there would be another calling. Turns out, Whittingham didn’t have to look far.
“My mother works in business and she’s friends with a lot of people in the different departments at her company,” she says, “so she was able to tell me the roles those different departments have.”
She decided on finance or accounting, and a friend with the same interests had Bentley as her first choice.
“I hadn’t heard of Bentley, but when one of the admission counselors visited it was just the three of us, so we got to talk one-on-one with the Bentley representatives. It was really nice.”
Bentley’s record of strong job-placement outcomes after graduation — especially in high tech, where she’s interested in working — put the school on Whittingham’s list. When she learned about the FirstGen Fellows award, it put Bentley over the top.
Bentley is taking this first-generation challenge seriously, both in its recruitment and enrollment strategy and in a dedication of scholarship money to this student population.
“From an institutional recruitment standpoint, we recognized the need to do something really strategic around first-gen students, and that was the main impetus of the FirstGen Presidential Fellows program,” says Griffin. “These students are getting fully funded. The university is putting a lot of money behind the education of these students and making sure that, when they come to Bentley, all they have to focus on are their studies.
“We also wanted to attract first-gen students from minority populations that are under-represented in higher education,” she adds. “We believe in these students, and we know what they’re capable of. FirstGen Fellows is one piece of a larger university strategy to ensure that students on our campus come to us with a diverse range of life experiences.”
In this pilot year, the FirstGen Presidential Fellows program is finding its way. Mentorship opportunities with faculty and alumni will be a major priority. Fellows will develop skills they need to lead: self-awareness, problem solving, communication and collaboration.
The first cohort is made up of 14 students — all of whom identify as either Hispanic, Black, African American, or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander. As leadership is the cornerstone to the program, students are chosen based on their potential to lead.
“A benefit we have is that we’re a business school. We want to recruit students who have an eye for business,” says Griffin. “So whether they identify as underrepresented minorities or not, the fact that they’re first-generation college students means that they bring a perspective to college and eventually to business that’s going to be unique and that will hopefully make a real difference at the organizations they join when they leave Bentley.”
Learn about Diversity and Inclusion at Bentley
Whittingham and Williams both say the program is helping make the transition to college easier. They took part in a virtual two-day seminar with faculty, staff and other fellows over the summer and have participated in virtual workshops and panels since arriving on campus.
“We talked about our transitioning, because obviously as first generation we don’t know much about the transition to college,” says Williams. “They encouraged us to explore and meet new people but to also keep your connections. You don’t want to forget everyone from your hometown.”
And while some aspects of the program are still in development, the fellows are already working on ideas for a major, four-year project to show the entire Bentley campus the impact first-gen students can make.
“It’s really exciting. I’m already thinking about ideas we could do,” Williams says. “It makes you think, ‘Wow, we really can be an impactful group. They chose us specifically for that purpose.’ I really am grateful for being here. It’s a life changer.”