Faculty Embrace First-Generation Safe Zone Posters

Helen Angell

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Photo by Marra Clay

First-generation and working-class students face unique challenges on the Whitman campus, and a new FGWC safe zone poster has been designed to help students recognize faculty who also identify as first generation or working class. These professors often act as unofficial mentors for FGWC students at Whitman.

Designed by junior Jesus Chaparro, the posters are part of a larger effort to improve support for FGWC students on campus. Chaparro, a member of the FGWC student group, hopes the posters will make life at Whitman easier for incoming generations of students.

Posters will be distributed this semester to the 47 faculty members who identify as either first generation or working class, and a few posters already hang outside faculty offices. This network of FGWC professors is a project Professor of History Julie Charlip, the adviser to the FGWC student group, began in 2002 after a student-led forum about classism. Charlip was moved by the stories students told about the struggles they face at Whitman, and she recognized the need for mentorship from faculty who understand the challenges these students face.  Every year since 2002, Charlip has compiled a list of faculty, including visiting professors, who identify as FGWC. Faculty on the list hail from every division of the college.

While the list can help students find FGWC faculty in any department, the posters are an important step in helping students connect with professors. The list is posted outside of Charlip’s office and is available on her website, but the posters greatly increase visibility of FGWC faculty.

“Socioeconomic class is not something that can be seen. You can’t automatically tell if someone is working class or first generation,” said sophomore Maricela Sanchez-Garcia, co-president of the FGWC student group.

This can make it difficult for students to find professors who have been through similar experiences. Speaking with professors who understand the challenges of being a first-generation student or of coming from a working-class background is an important source of support for FGWC students.

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Photo by Marra Clay

Sanchez-Garcia spoke about her own close relationship with Kristy King, a former visiting professor of politics at Whitman who gave Sanchez-Garcia encouragement and advice when she needed it most. Sanchez-Garcia hopes the posters will help more students find a mentor like King.

“There are probably some first-generation students here who haven’t found a connection with a professor yet,” Sanchez-Garcia said.

Charlip hung up her poster a few weeks ago, but she hasn’t had any FGWC students approach her because of the poster yet. However, Charlip said that in past years she has had many students come and vent in her office because they knew she was first generation and working class, and they could speak to her without feeling self-conscious about their background.

“They just want someone to listen,” said Charlip.

The FGWC student group is another safe space in which students can voice their concerns, share stories about the frustrating or difficult experiences they’ve had on campus and support one another in a variety of ways.

Whitman’s FGWC students make up only 12 percent of the student body, which means that the experience of being first generation or working class is not something the majority of students can relate to.

Sanchez-Garcia spoke about how difficult it can be for a FGWC student, when so many of their peers do not share the same experiences.

“Even when Thanksgiving break comes around, or spring break, I don’t always have that chance to go back home, because I have to stay here and work to make sure that I can pay for my tuition,” said Sanchez-Garcia. “It’s not something I’m embarrassed or ashamed of. It’s just hard.”

Charlip and Sanchez-Garcia both hope students and faculty will become more aware of these class dynamics at Whitman. While students, faculty and staff are very wary of language that could be homophobic, racist, sexist or otherwise contribute to a hostile environment on campus, Charlip and Sanchez-Garcia expressed concern that there is far less campus discussion about class inequality or the ways in which FGWC students can be alienated or marginalized. 

“Sometimes [other students] don’t realize that people come from very different financial and socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Chaparro.

Efforts to increase support also include an ice cream social where FGWC incoming students and faculty can meet each other at the beginning of every fall, as well as movie screenings, a panel about class inequality at the Power and Privilege Symposium last week and a mentorship program that pairs upperclassmen with incoming first-years in the FGWC group.

The posters are one very visible step toward  raising awareness about these inequalities on campus and building better support for FGWC students.