Elevating the Visibility of First-Gen Students: Maria Dykema Erb

Elevating the Visibility of First-Gen Students on our Campus
BU’s First-Gen College Celebration Week

Voice of Maria Dykema Erb, inaugural Director of the BU Newbury Center

On Tuesday, November 8th, colleges and universities across the United States will be
celebrating first-generation students, faculty, staff, and alumni on their campuses in recognition of National First-generation College Celebration Day. This date was chosen by the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA and the Suder Foundation, and the Council for Opportunity in Education in honor of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. This landmark legislation provided federal grants and loans to college students to assist them in affording a higher education, as well as the investment in programs like the Federal TRiO programs which include Talent Search, Upward Bound, Student Support Services, and the McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, to name a few.

Here at Boston University, the Newbury Center is hosting the 2nd annual university-wide First-generation College Celebration, celebrating not just for one day, but an entire week.  It has been extremely meaningful and moving for me to see our BU community come out in full support of our first-gen students, otherwise known as our Terrier F1RSTS. Faculty, staff, the colleges and schools, departments and offices, have all stepped up to participate in our campus-wide events or offer mini-celebrations in their own areas. Such a huge difference for me having deeply felt the stigma and pain of being a first-gen student when I was in college, to now being a part of elevating the first-gen identity as a point of pride for our Terrier F1RSTS.

The week’s activities kick off with a First-gen Summit at MIT bringing together first-gen students from all over the US.  On November 7th, Pabel Martinez, founder of Plurawl, a non-profit that addresses the stigmas that the Latinx community faces which leads to compromising their authentic selves in the workplace, will give a keynote address that is entitled, “Not Safe For Work: Redefining Professionalism in the Workplace.”  This event is co-sponsored by the Newbury Center, BU Diversity & Inclusion and the Faculty and Staff of Color Community Network, Organizational Development & Learning, and the Office of the Senior Diversity Officer.

On the official National First-gen Celebration Day, the Enrollment and Student Administration, the Dean of Students, and the Newbury Center are co-sponsoring the big event which is open to the entire BU community in the Metcalf Hall Ballroom in the George Sherman Union. During this celebration, we’ll have games, prizes, food, creation of a temporary mural, a photobooth, chair massages, a research poster exhibit with research done by our first-gen students, tabling by our campus partners, and an opportunity to write notes of encouragement to first-gen students which we will distribute at our Newbury Center study break on December 13th.

We also invite everyone to stop by the BU Arts Initiative to take in the Newbury Center Art Exhibit, which consists of various art mediums created by our first-gen students.  Other events throughout the week include the 4th Tri-Alpha National Honor Society Induction Ceremony, our Graduate and Professional First-gen Friday events, as well as a variety of first-gen workshops, and recognition of our first-gen students who have served or are serving in the military in honor of Veterans Day.  We will even have a First-gen Professionals Conversation Café which is for first-generation faculty and staff, an initiative that is getting off the ground through the efforts of the Newbury Center, BU Diversity & Inclusion, Organizational Development and Learning, and Human Resources.

BU First-Gen College Celebration 2022 Schedule

As I reflect upon the celebration week that the Newbury Center team and I are spearheading, I can’t help but think about how much things have changed since I was a first-gen college student at the University of New Hampshire.  My younger self would never have believed that 34 years later, I would be the inaugural director of a center devoted to the holistic success of first-generation undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.  Back then, we didn’t even have the terminology or language to describe how a first-gen student experienced college differently from continuing-gen students. In addition to the first-gen identity, with all my intersectional identities as a woman of color and transracial adoptee from a low-income, working-class background, statistically, the odds were stacked against me. I shouldn’t have made it through college…but I persevered and graduated in four years. All the support that I wish I had back then, is now what I can give to the first-gen students so that they can thrive throughout their time at BU.

However, I also recognize that I didn’t make it through college back then all on my own.  I had some critical people in my life who, at the time, I didn’t even know were my mentors, and neither did they.  Mentoring was not a widely talked about practice, or at least, not in my first-gen circles. Fast forward to the present day where we see the importance and value of mentoring for first-gen students. If our first-gen students have role models who can provide guidance, advice, and encouragement, it is more likely they will complete their undergraduate, graduate, or professional degrees.

This is how you can make a difference as a faculty or staff member at BU. I encourage all faculty and staff to participate in the Terrier F1RSTS Advocates Training that is on the HR Organizational Development & Learning Terrier eDevelopment Training platform. Through this training, faculty and staff will become more knowledgeable about who our first-gen students are and how to support them. Upon completion of the three training modules, faculty and staff then become Terrier F1RSTS Advocates, will receive a placard for their office, and will be featured on our Terrier F1RSTS Advocates Directory on the Newbury Center website.

The Newbury Center also offers a few other mentoring programs through the Elevate Magazine mentoring program, which brings together first-gen students with faculty and staff for the ideation phase for a contribution to Elevate’s annual spring issue.  The BU Libraries staff have offered the wonderful Terrier F1RSTS Library Connections program, which pairs first-gen students with librarian volunteers to assist with research and questions. Finally, if you’re interested in a more formal mentoring program, College Access and Student Success in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development is regularly looking for additional faculty and staff mentors to support their students who might identify as BIPOC, first-gen, and/or from low-income backgrounds.

In closing, I hope that you will not only participate in our BU’s National First-gen Celebration Week, but you’ll continue to elevate and celebrate first-gen students at BU year-round!

About the author:  Maria Dykema Erb is the inaugural Director of the Boston University Newbury Center, bringing nearly three decades of experience in diversity and inclusion work, student recruitment and retention, academic and student affairs. Maria received her MEd in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Vermont and her bachelor’s degree from the University of New Hampshire.

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