‘U’ first-generation scholarship expands to peer institutions

Monday, May 11, 2020 - 11:26pm

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The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts announced in a press release Tuesday morning the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program, a scholarship program that currently supports first-generation students at the University of Michigan and Cornell University, will expand to four additional institutions of higher education including Johns Hopkins University, Queens College, St. Francis College and Syracuse University. 

The six universities form the Kessler Scholars Collaborative as part of an initiative to foster a community of first-generation students through research and access to campus resources.

LSA alumni Fred Wilpon and Judy Kessler Wilpon made a donation to the University to establish the Irene and Morris B. Kessler Presidential Scholarship Fund in 2007 for first-generation students. The program, in its 12th year at LSA, expanded to Cornell University in the fall of 2019. Students in the program gain access to tutoring opportunities, career workshops, peer mentorship and additional academic support for four years. 

LSA sophomore Adrianna Farmer said the Kessler Scholars program is important to help bridge gaps for first-generation college students and believes it is beneficial to implement the program at other universities.

“First-Gen students are left to their own devices when they enter college- regardless of where they go,” Farmer said. “Most first-gen students are also low-income, so Kessler builds a bridge for that gap between first-gens and students who have had parents attend college. They provide useful information about the campus and the resources that often go untouched. I think expanding the program to different universities is an important step for first-gen students… No matter where a first-gen goes it will be difficult to get accustomed right away like some students.”

150 U-M students receive support through the program each year, and the graduation rates, 81 percent for four-year students and 95 percent for six-year students, are higher than the overall graduation rate at the University of Michigan and other institutions across the country. 

Fred Wilpon was a first-generation student when he attended the University. In the press release, he explained the importance of creating an inclusive environment for students.

“It is vital that all students feel a sense of belonging and a sense of their worth on campus,” Wilpon said. “By building community and connecting students with one another and with staff dedicated to their success, students in the Kessler Scholars Program are empowered to be leaders and, in turn, give back to their communities and the students who follow behind them.”

LSA senior Audrey Funwie is on the Kessler Scholars Program Advisory board and has been in the program for three years. She said the Kessler Scholars Program had an overall positive impact on her college experience and made her feel like she was part of a community. 

“The Kessler Presidential Scholars Program takes giving a scholarship a step further by creating a space that gives first-generation college students an opportunity to further their knowledge outside of a lecture hall,” Funwie said. “They have workshops on how to network, how to apply for internships and a great staff that is always there to make sure the students are taking advantage of all the opportunities U of M has to offer. Personally, the program has given me so much especially by creating events where I can connect with other students in the program. Seeing other first-generation college students have the same questions as me made me feel like I wasn’t alone.” 

LSA Dean Anne Curzan said in the press release expanding the opportunity to peer institutions will enhance students’ academic, social and professional development in college, while allowing the schools to understand the needs of first-generation students on their particular campuses.

"Working with other world-class institutions not only expands opportunity, but also enables us to evaluate how we can best support first-generation students on different types of campuses in different parts of the country," Curzan said. 

As the program expands, the School of Education’s Center for Education Design intends to study the impact of the support on students as well as how schools differ in implementing the program.

Gail Gibson, Kessler Presidential Scholars Program director, said in the press release research supports the expansion initiative to strengthen the experiences of first-generation students in higher education.

“The Kessler Scholars Collaborative is driven by academic research which shows that community building and support is as critical to student success as funding,” Gibson said. “This program and the work being done to study the results of the program at the School of Education will chart the course for meeting the needs of first-generation students nationwide.”

Daily Staff Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at arjunt@umich.edu.