Inaugural Celebration Centers First-Gen Students' Successes, Challenges

“It is important to note that here at RWU, the celebration is new, but the work to support first generation students is not,” said Stephanie Akunvabey, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer.

By Anna Cohen
A group of first generation students, faculty, and staff

For the first time, RWU formally celebrated students, faculty, staff, and alumni who identify – or identified – as first-generation college students at our inaugural First-Generation Celebration Day, November 4, 2021.  

First-generation community members gathered to share their stories and celebrate their successes, and also spoke of their challenges, such as navigating cultural differences, as well as their sense of pride and accomplishment. 

“First generation students can do the same things that anybody else can, whether or not we have the connections, whether we have money, whether we're the same skin color as everyone else or whether we speak the same language," said Legal Studies and Political Science major Jesahias Quiroa during a student panel. "We may need a helping hand, but we have the mentality we need to work hard. It pays off for us in the end, not even just in college.”

First Generation Day is recognized nationally in early November, marking the Nov. 8 anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which sought to level the playing field for Americans from minoritized and low-income backgrounds. Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Stephanie Akunvabey brings this First Generation Celebration to RWU for the first time this year.  

“It is important to note that here at RWU the celebration is new, but the work to support first generation students is not,” said Akunvabey. “We have wonderful programs that support first-generation students.” 

The celebration included a full day of programming on the Bristol campus and a gathering at the Providence campus to recognize, appreciate, and support students, faculty, staff, and alumni whose parents do not have college degrees. RWU President Ioannis Miaoulis, who was a first-generation college student, hosted first-generation community members at a reception to close the day. He spoke of his understanding of the first-generation experience, and announced a capital campaign to raise funds to further support first-generation students, who make up 20 percent of RWU's undergraduate population.  

The Center for Student Academic Success provided an overview of their services through interactive workshops. Advising and Peer Mentorship and the Tutoring Center shared academic success tips and debunked tutoring myths. Student Accessibility Services discussed their services, and the Counseling Center covered mental health resources.  

“I transferred from a school that did not have a career development center or writing center. It was basically sink or swim. It's extremely helpful to have the support we have at Roger Williams,” said first-generation law student Dorothy Batcher. “I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how faculty are willing to help. They really want you to succeed.”  

A panel of first-generation faculty and staff members encouraged students to participate in office hours and ask questions. Justin Kishbaugh, Director of the Writing Center, Associate Director of Academic Success, and Professor of Writing at the RWU School of Law, advised students to attend office hours at least once a semester. SECCM Dean Rob Griffin agreed.  

“Your professors dedicated their lives to being educators. My favorite part of the semester is when students come to ask questions. We get past the homework and I hear about where they grew up and what their goals are. That is my absolute favorite part of my job,” said Griffin. 

President Miaoulis shared his story through a video detailing his experience as a first-generation college student and international student.  

“One of the reasons I was attracted to Roger Williams is because of the support it provides to students, first-generation students and all students,” he said. “Being a first-generation college student has had a transformative effect on my life. There are many stories about what being a first-generation college student has meant to so many Roger Williams students, our alumni, and our employees.” 

Akunvabey is looking forward to making this event an annual celebration, and is committed to supporting first-generation students throughout their journey.  

“If you are a first-generation student at Roger Williams, you have a wonderful community of people who see you, value you, and respect you, and want to celebrate the accomplishments that you are building on a day-to-day basis. Every moment you have, every time you show up to class, every small victory, we’re here to cheer you along,” she said.  

Inaugural First Generation College Day Celebration