Smith College in Northampton, MA is one of the leading higher education institutions for “first-gen” students — the first in their families to attend a four-year college. Nearly 18% of the student population identifies as “first-gen,” significantly more than many of Smith’s peer elite institutions, and the school is known as a place where these students thrive academically.
Administrators are very familiar with the unique challenges facing this population of students stemming from intense awareness of their own and their family’s unique experiences, financial challenges, and other deeply personal matters. Associate Dean of Students, Marge Litchfield, herself a former first-gen student, has long advocated for programs that help these students orient themselves.
The challenge has been to create mentoring programs that support these students throughout their first year. Tina Wildhagen, an assistant professor of sociology at Smith College who has a book in the works on first-gen college students, has noted that, “When there’s a good organizational structure for first generation students, like we have at Smith … that really helps students to claim their identity and to be proud of it, rather than to be ashamed of it.”
This past year, the school’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life, headed by Director Jessica Bacal, hit upon a winning formula, using digital storytelling as the backbone of a year-long program with the goals of developing a supportive community of peers, helping students recognize and value meaningful experiences, and to help the students get better at talking about themselves, coaching each other, and developing new relationships. Bacal brought in StoryCenter consultant and teacher, Yvonne Mendez, who collaborated with Smith on curricular development.
Bacal said, “As an educator, I found it gratifying to know that this process was so meaningful for students, and I love that the finished stories can be shared with other first generation students at Smith and beyond.”
There were many elements to the pilot program of 15 students, all aimed at building the students’ confidence and supporting them in appreciating their unique perspective as first-gen students. These components included monthly writing/conversation sessions with fellow participants, meetings with faculty mentors, technical training on digital storytelling, and more, all culminating in the program’s highlights: an intensive overnight retreat where the students would produce their stories and ready them for a presentation at a special dinner event.
Important to the success of the program was a close collaboration with Smith’s Educational Technology Services (ETS). Across the institution, ETS works to advance the integration of learning technologies in teaching, learning and research. On this project, Deborah Keisch and Dan Bennett of ETS provided digital storytelling facilitation and technical consultation, respectively, by leading Intro to Digital Storytelling sessions, Story Circle collaborative sessions, and specific tutorials on working with WeVideo.
“It was by design that ETS launched our WeVideo pilot in tandem with and in support of the First-Gen Out Loud pilot,” says Associate Director of ETS, Yasmin Chin Eisenhauer. “We worked with two testing groups and were most interested in the affordances that use of a cloud-based video editing tool could provide. Thus far, we’re most excited about two benefits. First, the loss of data is greatly reduced when working within a cloud environment. Secondly, student work is accessible online 24/7 which allows for collaboration with instructors, peers and technologists both within and outside of face-to-face instructional sessions. This enables effective delivery of blended learning experiences and on-demand support.”
The response from students was tremendous. Technically, they have learned a set of skills that will help them throughout their academic and future endeavors. Most significantly, their perspective on themselves and their role in the world has been altered in positive ways. Here are some of their moving comments in response to a survey at the end of the program:
“I am a visual learner and find it easier to picture what I am thinking. Putting my story on a digital format really allowed me to explore what I wanted and allowed me to make something that would allow people into my mind…Writing the story in itself really allowed me the time and space to reflect on something I hadn’t allowed myself to think about for years.”
“I feel like putting my story in digital form forced me to be comfortable with my voice in text and audio. It challenged me to reflect and re-tell my story in a new frame, which helped me affirm my identity as a first generation college student.”
“It was nice to see my story come to life in a video because I think video does a wonderful job of encapsulating an abundance of emotions in such short amount of time. The visual elements help to remind the watcher that the story is unique, personal and one of a kind.”
“My story is one that I have shared verbally and have written about quite a few times…though this is something I sometimes struggle with upon reflection. Putting my story into video form has helped me through this ongoing process of validation. Having it in a visual and scripted audio format made it seem more real and authentic and not just a collection of distant memories and rehashing emotions. I remember watching my video in full for the first time upon completion and thinking that my story truly was significant, whether I realized it or not. It is a part of my life that influences me everyday…”
Building on the success of the pilot program, the initial cadre of students in the program has been invited to coach and mentor the incoming students as the program enters its second year.
You can learn more about this remarkable program and see examples of the students’ work at https://www.smith.edu/cwl/narratives.php