Being the first to try something new can be unnerving. Being the first person in your family to attend college can be terrifying.
This past November, the club F1RST held a panel discussion about ways to enhance the Lehigh experience for first-generation students. One idea was to incorporate a first-generation residential community.
Today, eight first-generation students are signed up to live in a themed-housing community located in Drinker House. Incoming freshman and transfer students will also have the opportunity to sign up for this themed housing set to begin in the fall of 2017.
Zara Ahmad, ’16, ’17G, was one of the first students to propose a housing community for first-generation students at Lehigh. This fall, she will serve as the community’s Gryphon.
“I am working hard to bridge the gap between all the first-generation different initiatives on campus,” Ahmad said. “I’m excited to start housing where first-generation students of all colors, identities and socioeconomic statuses can come together.”
During her time at Lehigh, Ahmad became involved with the Lehigh University Summer Scholars Institute, which focuses on acclimating first-generation students to college through a three-week summer program. She said she is excited to be involved in another opportunity where students with similar problems and stresses can identify with each other.
The goal of the themed-housing community is to bring students together in a welcoming and relaxed environment.
Ahmad said this is a community where the group of students truly understands the first-generation experience. Residents are surrounded by students in a similar position and might feel more comfortable expressing their concerns or fears about attending Lehigh.
Kinga Kuczynski, ’20, said she plans to live in the first-generation housing community because she wants to be surrounded by students with whom he could closely relate.
“I hope to get greater guidance,” Kuczynski said in an email. “We will be living with a Gryphon who can help with the college process. Also I’m looking forward to bonding with students who will understand the struggles of students who didn’t grow up with the opportunities other students have.”
Susan Ellis, the program director of the Advising Center and Robert Flowers, the deputy provost for faculty affairs and a professor in the chemistry department, will serve as the two advisers for the housing community.
Flowers identified with this group of students because he was a first-generation student himself.
During Flowers’ years of teaching at Lehigh, some of the students in his first-year seminar classes described their first-generation experiences on campus.
Flowers said he continues to hear about parents who didn’t attend college and don’t understand the college experience. He said Lehigh can be an especially stressful environment as a high-intensity university with little socioeconomic diversity.
“You don’t have a support network outside of school to deal with specific issues,” Flowers said. “You are missing a support system at home, which I think is really important.”
Ellis said she is looking forward to working with Flowers and serve as a mentor for this housing community.
Both Flowers and Ellis will work with the community prior to the fall semester to determine the students’ interests and needs.
Potential events students could plan are dinners, trips off campus, bringing in speakers to help students with job interviews, filling out financial aid forms and creating resumes.
“The main goal is to develop a (first-generation housing) community that would spill out into the larger community,” Ellis said. “This is one more way the campus pays attention.”
Henry Odi, vice provost for academic diversity, is planning to work closely with residential life and residential services in providing support along with Flowers and Ellis.
He said Lehigh is looking beyond the summer first-generation experience and into a year-round one.
This housing community will introduce students to a larger group of first-generation students and programs like F1RST and LUSSI.
“There is an increasing level of interest in Lehigh for recruiting first-generation students and providing quality support services that are needed for these students to be successful,” Odi said.
Odi said he is excited about the interest the first-generation community is attracting, and he hopes to see its students gain confidence to take on leadership roles and speak about their experiences on campus.
He hopes the housing community will provide the students with a space to do so.