“I’m First” Supports First-Generation Graduate Students | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
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“I’m First” Supports First-Generation Graduate Students

Faculty; Alumni; Students

In support of equitable educational access and attainment for all Brown School students, a new program called I’m First offers first-generation students a forum to connect, gain support and access resources. 

Rae English, a second-year MSW candidate, says she and other first-generation college students face external challenges, such as ambiguity about processes and procedures, as well as internal ones like imposter syndrome, the suspicion one doesn’t belong or fit in. 

English is spending her concentration practicum supporting the development of I’m First programming, which is designed for any student who is the first person in their family to graduate from college and/or to attend graduate school. 

“Everyone in this school met rigorous requirements — all were chosen to be here,” she said. “None of us is more worthy of being a Brown School student than others. Yet, when you didn’t grow up in a space where navigating college was talked about with ease and casually shared, when you get to the Brown School it’s like living in a completely different world. It’s a world in which others may appear to — and do — navigate more easily.” 

ALumni Panel Participants

Alumni Laura Sandoval-Sweeny, MSW ’13, Sarah Gentry, MSW ’10, and Alana Flowers, MSW ’15, reflected on their experiences and insights as first-generation students during an “I’m First” panel discussion.

As students increasingly communicated a need for first-gen support, Matt Newlin, assistant director of Financial Aid and creator of I’m First, organized the efforts to make those resources available, beginning this past fall. 

“I realized that we, as a school, were not doing enough to support these students in their transition to the Brown School and throughout their program. The unique challenges faced by first-generation students are wide-ranging and intersectional,” Newlin said. 

Newlin is working to foster a student-driven mission that allows first-generation Brown School students to communicate what assistance they need during their program. I’m First aims to grow into a community of first-generation students, staff and faculty at the Brown School. 

 “As a first-generation student myself, I understand the reality of struggling through college and trying to navigate graduate school on my own,” he said. “My intention is to help our first-generation students have successful experiences at the Brown School equal to our non-first-generation students.” 

Dean Mary McKay, herself a first-generation student, is committed to the success of the program. 

“It is so important to for us to meet students where they are,” she said. “First-gen students may need extra support and guidance, as their networks may not always have the resources to provide advice. We certainly want to tailor our supports to meeting the unique needs of each of our students.” 

I’m First has begun to offer programming and support including panel speakers, brown-bag workshops, networking opportunities, dinner with Dean McKay, and an online group for resource sharing and mutual support. A recent panel discussion brought first-gen Brown School alumni to speak with current students about the balancing act of managing class, practicum, work and family as a first-generation student. 

Newlin has also distributed “First-Gen Proud” office signs to faculty and staff who were first-gen students themselves. It’s one facet of the ongoing work to build community and to make it clear that first-gen students are an important and integral part of the Brown School community.

“Those of us who are first in our families to graduate from college and/or attend graduate school should be proud of our accomplishments,” he said, “and should feel a sense of belonging in this school.”