Go With the FLoW
For many young adults, college is the first time they get to independently navigate their own lives. From incorporating feedback from professors into developed projects to managing and balancing course requirements with personal relationships and work experiences, college is intended to be demanding for all students.
However, what is a challenge to some students may be an insurmountable barrier to others, particularly those who come from low-income or working class-backgrounds, or who are the trailblazing first in their families to go to college.
To aid Bennington students, FLoW—a group for first-generation, low-income, and working-class students—was established by Jocelyn Salcedo ’18, Debbie Warnock, and the Offices of Academic Services and Student Life to keep up with the rapid cultural and socioeconomic diversification among the student body.
Approximately 101 Bennington students are the first in their families to attend a four-year college. While low-income and working-class students can be trickier to quantify, since economic status varies by region, 156 domestic students qualify for the Federal Pell Grant.
Though many at the College come from FLoW backgrounds, these students can still feel alienated among their peers.
“I didn’t know I was FLoW until this year,” said Kelsey Broadfield ’20. “I just wondered why I felt so weird all the time. But I couldn’t figure it out until I had a conversation with Jocelyn and mentioned that neither of my parents went to college and my dad is a truck driver.”
FLoW hosts events each term, from practical help with taxes and job applications to advocacy discussions to social mixers. For those who participate, FLoW events can make a world of difference to students’ self-perception.
“I’m learning to accept the highs and lows that come from being FLoW,” said Melissa Hernandez-Panameno ’20. “It’s okay to accept it won’t always be an easy road, or to not relate to all your friends in every situation. It’s nice to talk with other FLoW students and recognize there’s no shame in where you come from.”
“Just getting to meet other FLoW students has made a huge difference to them,” said Katie Montovan, faculty member and associate dean for advising. “Having that community, not feeling alone, having the words to talk about their experiences: all that changes how they interact with people on campus.”
“It was clear that we had a need on campus to reach out and support these students,” said Kate Child, director of first-year experience and international student services. “I began working out of academic services with first-generation college students. I made a commitment to myself that I would meet with all the first-gen students within the first two weeks of the term.”
Child, who was a first-gen college student herself, offered to be a resource for others at Bennington. In 2017, she and Salcedo emailed first-gen students at the beginning of Fall Term, leading an orientation group that created a network for these students.
In spring 2017, a group of Bennington students and staff attended Class Action’s Annual First Generation College Student Summit. This summit, now in its sixth year, is a forum for students and supportive administrators from various colleges and universities to network, share resources, identify struggles, and discuss solutions around topics concerning first-gen students.
In the wake of this summit, Bennington students and administrators who had previously worked within their own spheres to address the challenges first-gen students face coalesced their efforts into a campus-wide initiative.
Faculty member Debbie Warnock identified the need for an institutionally supported group. “From my research, I learned that just being grassroots and student-led isn’t sustainable, yet students do need their own space on campus.”
To give FLoW both long-term structure and immediate peer support, FLoW is organized into two branches: a steering committee comprised of students, faculty, staff, and administrators, and an independent student union.
“The steering committee offers representation around the table, so we can address issues coming from various places on campus,” said Child. “Right now, we’ve been doing a lot of planning. But we’ll soon build out both an events calendar and campus initiatives we want to take on.”
What’s in an Acronym?
While many institutes of higher education recognize the importance of supporting first-gen students, FLoW’s inclusive acronym, developed by First-Year Advisor Adriana Diaz, extends that support as widely as possible.
It’s important to expand the definition beyond first gen because it’s not a catch-all. Not all first-gen students are low income, and not all low-income students are first gen, but that experience of feeling unmoored or like you don’t belong at a private liberal arts college is similar.
Faculty member Debbie Warnock
“As a low-income student, you can feel out of place at a first-gen summit, even if that experience matches up closely with your own,” said Montovan. “I like that we’ve built FLoW more inclusive at Bennington because it’s important that all these students feel they’re part of it.”
The Difference a Year Makes
Even within a year of FLoW’s formation, students and administrators alike have noticed a rise in visibility and understanding for this segment of the College’s student body. Faculty gain a deeper respect for the workload and pressures their students juggle, while students identify new mentors who understand their backgrounds.
“I’m moving away from describing FLoW students as lacking something,” said Broadfield. “Instead, I’m reframing those talents: yes, I know how to save money, yes, I know how to budget. I catch myself when I use negative language.”
While the group has found success in its first year from which to build upon, FLoW administrators realize that there are still students with whom they have yet to connect.
“FLoW enables people to share their stories and see where they overlap or don’t, which helps fight the stigma,” said Warnock. “However, there’s a spectrum of confidence. There are some people on campus who are FLoW but don’t talk to us yet. But the group is here, and if these students become comfortable enough to have a conversation, we’re ready to talk.”
To provide resources for all FLoW students, even those who are not publicly identifying as such, Diaz has been running FLoW's social media and developing a FLoW website where students will be able to read testimonials from fellow FLoW students, staff, and faculty, as well as find answers to frequently asked questions.
“I’ve been listening to everyone’s stories and building this website in my free time,” said Diaz. “I’m also thinking ahead to next term for helpful events, like resume writing and grad school workshops. Additionally, I’m gathering information to create a FLoW alumni network.”
“As faculty, staff, and administrators, it’s our job to raise FLoW visibility levels on campus because otherwise, it can become an invisible, stigmatized identity,” said Warnock. “The website Adriana’s developing is valuable because a network of faculty and students sharing their own experiences gives others permission to share their own, too.”
At the Summit
Campus representation of FLoW students, both at Bennington and beyond, is growing.
This spring, another group of students and staff attended the 2018 Class Action First Gen Summit. Warnock, who helped organize this year’s Summit, noted its evolution.
“There’s a good trend happening,” Warnock said. “Students are well-represented, but there are more faculty and administrators talking about programs on their campuses, which is an improvement from grass-roots student groups having to fight their way.”
At the Summit, FLoW students networked with those from peer institutions and learned more about their identities, as well as resources available to them.
“I went to a session that was all about self-care and meditation,” said Fran Edwards ’18. “It wasn’t talked about as a big chunk out of your day. They had great exercises, 10-minute activities for when you’re sad or stressed. I’m about to turn into someone who mediates everyday!”
“I went to a session on being first gen and studying abroad,” said Malhy Mendez ’21. “I’d never thought about international travel as a possibility. It was inspiring to hear a FLoW student talk about her experiences and give the tip that you don’t have to do a fancy study abroad trip to Europe to still have a valid experience.”
“My biggest takeaway was learning more about myself and how my actions are connected to my background: I feel the need to do well because if I don’t do well, it will have more repercussions than for someone who has more opportunities,” said Alex Luttery ’21.
From the start of the event to the end, Montovan, who attended the Summit, noticed a palpable shift in the group.
“The confidence boost was amazing,” said Montovan. “Students walked in at the beginning a little nervous, but by the end of the day, there was exuberance. Meeting others and having that context is important.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer