Shelly Le contributed additional reporting.
While most Whitman College students come from upper and middle class families where at least one parent has graduated from college, a growing population of first-generation college students attends Whitman. The current first-year class has the largest number of first-generation students that Whitman has ever seen. This trend is accompanied by improved administrative involvement in promoting conversations about cultural and socioeconomic diversity.
First-generation students experience Whitman through a different lens, often feeling like there is nobody else they can relate to or willing to hear their story.
Alumnus Kyle Martz graduated from Whitman in 2007 and now works as the interim program adviser for the Intercultural Center. As a first-generation college student himself, he is impressed by how far the campus has come in generating a network of support for first-generation students.
“Being gay [at Whitman] was not hard, [but] being a first-generation college student was very hard here,” said Martz.
As a response to the difficulties of first-generation students, the First Generation and Working Class Club was founded in 2002 as a list of about 30 faculty members willing to mentor students who self-identify as first-generation and working class. This list continues to grow today, now standing at 47 faculty members.
In fall 2003, the admissions office created their first annual reception for first-years with a working class background as part of fall orientation. Now, the FGWC reception during fall orientation is facilitated by the FGWC co-leaders and the adviser of the club, Professor of History Julie Charlip. Director of Fall Orientation and Associate Dean of Students Barbara Maxwell works to reflect the values of FGWC throughout orientation with programming like Voices of Whitman.
“[Voices] is meant to crack open the door as a first look into the fact that you have come to this campus and you are going to encounter people who are different from you and you have to be open to those conversations,” said Maxwell.
In 2007, Charlip spent five days traveling with Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland and others to explore what peer institutions have accomplished on diversity issues. Cleveland was inspired by a facility at Colorado College called the “Glass House,” which houses 30 students and focuses on developing a safe and supportive community for them.
“They called it the Glass House because a lot of students say that no matter what they do, they feel like other people are looking at them because they stand out. That’s what planted the seed for the Glover Alston Center,” said Cleveland.
The Glover Alston Center was established in 2010 to be a safe space where multicultural clubs, including FGWC, could meet and interact.
FGWC has evolved into a resource for first-generation students not only to share their personal experiences with each other, but also to attempt to initiate campus-wide conversation about what it means to be an FGWC student at Whitman.
Cleveland was interested in the group because of his own experience as a first-generation and working class student.
“I’m decades older than these students, but I can put myself right back in their place and remember what it was like in the insecurities and the fear that I had about going to school,” said Cleveland.
Cleveland’s father was a railroad worker and his mother worked from home. He started at the University of Minnesota and remembers orientation as one of the worst experiences of his life. He thought that he was supposed to pick classes for the entirety of his four years, so he stayed up until 3 a.m. planning his schedule. There was no one there to guide him.
“I didn’t know how to do research in a library, I had never been in an art museum, [and] I had never gone to a concert. I had never heard classical music. That may not seem like much, but there’s a cultural capital there that you don’t have that everyone around you seems to understand, and so you pretend,” said Cleveland.
The climate on campus has improved since Cleveland first arrived, but there is still work to be done, he said.
Recent administrative efforts to support the celebration of diverse backgrounds include the Power and Privilege Symposium, the addition of a counselor experienced with historically marginalized groups and the hiring of an associate dean of diversity and intercultural affairs, who will start next fall.
“We are not where we need to be yet. We need to do a better job of educating students, faculty and staff about what it means to be in the majority, and what it means to live in a diverse community,” said Cleveland.
Hiring for the new associate dean of diversity position started with 60 applicants and eventually narrowed down to a final four, who were invited to campus to give presentations and meet with faculty, students and staff. The final decision will likely be made during the early part of May.
Whoever receives the position will work with the community to develop a strategic plan on diversity. Though faculty, staff, students and administrators have identified some of the responsibilities they want to see in this new dean of diversity, they also recognize these are subject to change.
“It is a brand new position, [so] the job is going to evolve. It could change as that person identifies things that are just as important to take on,” said Cleveland.
The new dean of diversity will be forced to balance acting as a resource for Whitman students while simultaneously educating the campus as a whole. Some fear that the position won’t lend itself to personal interaction with students.
“How much time will they have with students as opposed to institutional research and development initiatives? I work in student affairs, so I have a bias that I want this person to be able to work with students and advocate for students as much as possible,” said Interim Director of the Intercultural Center Matt Ozuna.
First-generation Whitman student Lionel Valdez* reiterated this concern.
“I would like to see a welcoming person to minority students, and being there, being supportive and encouraging of all student needs. I think that’s really needed here, especially for minority students,” he said.
Leaders on campus and across the country recognize the importance of promoting collective conversations instead of reducing diversity to a single elite position. A Stanford University report released this month revealed that simply facilitating discussions about social-class backgrounds reduced the achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students by up to 63 percent.
Cleveland and Charlip hope that by adding the position, the college will be inspired to create new innovative solutions and not pretend to have solved the problem all at once.
“No single person can really take on the whole issues surrounding diversity, but I hope that with this position, faculty and students will begin to feel motivated and encouraged to begin talking about these issues and finding meaningful ways of addressing them,” said Charlip.
*Name has been changed.