SocialWork@Simmons Student Life: First Generation Faculty Mentor Program

To highlight the supportive and collaborative community that awaits prospective SocialWork@Simmons students, we are publishing a series of blog posts that feature many of our student life offerings.

The decision to pursue graduate school is not one to take lightly. Many graduate students, regardless of their program of study, need a support system to help them navigate the challenges that accompany the decision. While many students are able to rely on the expertise and knowledge of families members who preceded them and pursued higher education, students who are the first in their families to go to college — and to pursue graduate education — must rely on others for guidance on how to navigate academia.

“Academic institutions are often seen as very elitist, exclusive, and I think when you’re the first in your family to go to school, you don’t necessarily have someone to help you make sense of all that weirdness,” says Dr. Dana Grossman Leeman, Associate Dean for Online and Continuing Education and SocialWork@Simmons Program Director. To address the unique needs of first-generation students, Dr. Grossman Leeman established the First Generation Faculty Mentor Program for students enrolled in SocialWork@Simmons.

“I had a meeting with a student who was having some academic difficulty, and she was a first-generation student,” Dr. Grossman Leeman says. “It occurred to me after speaking with her: Wouldn’t it be great if this student had a mentor? And the best people to represent an academic institution are faculty members who were also first-generation students.”

Dr. Grossman Leeman wrote an email to the faculty, asking if any of them had been the first in their families to go to college and if they would be interested in being a mentor to students in the same situation. The response was immediate. One professor, she says, replied by saying, “If I had this when I was in school, it would have made a huge difference.” This professor became one of the first mentors to sign up for the program.

First-generation college students face unique challenges. According to Quartz, many first-generation students experience difficulty within four distinct domains: professional, financial, psychological, and academic. Professional mentoring is crucial in helping students address these challenges. While many of the statistics on first-generation students refer to undergraduate students, the challenges still exist at the graduate level.

Melanie Figueroa, SocialWork@Simmons student and a mentee in the program, said some of the challenges she faced entering graduate school included “not having anyone who can relate to the challenges of juggling school work, work, and family life, and feeling lost on what to expect and what was expected of me as a graduate student.”

Her mentor, SocialWork@Simmons faculty member Wendy DuCasse, echoed those sentiments when reflecting on her time as a graduate student.

“The challenge was never the work. It was always about self-doubt,” she says. “I wondered if I was capable of being a successful college student, especially because I didn’t know anyone who’d gone to college.” 

Both were excited about the First Generation Faculty Mentor Program when they heard about it from Dr. Grossman Leeman. 

“I know the value of having a mentor as a college student,” DuCasse says. “I hoped that I could be for a student or students what so many people were, and continue to be, for me.”

So how to do students learn about the program and get matched with a mentor? Dr. Grossman Leeman contacts students at the beginning of each term to see if they would like to be matched with a mentor. She then takes into consideration what the student is looking for in a mentor by conducting phone screenings before matching students with mentors. For example, Figueroa was looking for a woman of color to mentor her.

“I spoke with Dana over the phone on the qualities I was looking for in a mentor. She then emailed me back in less than a week with a match and was able to set up a phone conversation with my mentor,” Figueroa says.

DuCasse and Figueroa work together on topics including self-care, first-generation challenges, time management, stress management, and issues with classmates or professors.

“[DuCasse] has given me useful feedback on how to tackle certain obstacles within my graduate coursework, and she has motivated me to continue to pursue my goal of achieving a master’s,” Figueroa says of her mentor. “She is also positive, optimistic, and honest, which enables me to stay focused and motivated.”

The program has a positive impact on faculty members as well as students. DuCasse notes that her participation in the program has made her more aware of the types of concerns her students have: “My mentee has been an invaluable resource to me and keeps me centered in what may be concerns for students who are in my classes, too. 

The greatest benefit, according to DuCasse, is “communication with an extra member of your support system. It is so important to ensure that first-generation students have and maintain connections throughout their educational endeavors.”

The First Generation Faculty Mentor Program is just one of many programs that provides support and builds community in the SocialWork@Simmons program. If you are a prospective SocialWork@Simmons student, keep in mind that you will find various student life opportunities along with multiple ways to feel connected to our vibrant community. Learn more about student life opportunities by reading our blog post titled “Creating a Sense of Community.”