FYSEP: Building Confidence and a Sense of Belonging

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An expanded program enhances first-generation students’ participation in the Dartmouth experience

Dartmouth hall
Photo by Xiaoran (Seamore) Zhu ’19, Thayer 20 

Dartmouth last month rolled out a four-week pre-orientation program—compared to five days in previous years—to smooth the transition for first-generation undergraduates about to begin college life, thanks to donors who are supporting the First Year Student Enrichment Program (FYSEP) through The Call to Lead campaign.

Established in 2009 and supported by current-use funds for its first decade, FYSEP has helped hundreds of first-generation, low-income Dartmouth students prepare for the academic and social challenges of college life. Beyond the pre-orientation program, which the College conducted remotely this year, FYSEP serves undergraduates throughout their time at Dartmouth by providing ongoing programs, advising, and peer-to-peer mentoring. All first-generation students from very low-income backgrounds are invited into the program, and participation is voluntary.

Through the campaign, Dartmouth is seeking $18 million in endowed funds to expand several programs, including FYSEP, that support more than 15 percent of the student body each year and help make sure the students have access to the many opportunities to learn, grown, and explore at Dartmouth. To date, donors have committed nearly $16 million.

Two Dartmouth trustees who were first-generation students, Ric Lewis ’84 and Dan Black ’82, are especially keen advocates for the FYSEP expansion, in part because of their personal experiences.

“Having some guidance, counsel, and pastoral care in those early moments is critical to maximizing the incredible experience students receive at Dartmouth,” says Lewis. “I was the first in my family to attend college. My two freshman roommates were a third-generation Dartmouth student and a member of a family whose name adorns one of the most prominent buildings on campus. This challenged me to gain new perspective, normalize what I could be, and reset my aspiration bubble.”

Black recalls arriving at Dartmouth and realizing that many of his fellow first-year students understood “a code I didn’t know, a language I didn’t understand.”

“I’ve always felt you could have a different experience at Dartmouth if you came in knowing some of the tools at your disposal,” he says. “I believe that giving students the key to that code before they show up allows them to have a more fulsome experience.”

Helping Students Be Even More Prepared

Pre-orientation is FYSEP’s signature event. For the past decade, the College has invited first-generation students to attend a five-day introduction to Dartmouth life that included sample classes taught by faculty in a low-pressure environment. Students have learned strategies to navigate the academic and social challenges of campus life—with junior- and senior-year counselors, many of them FYSEP students themselves, sharing insights.

To provide an even more in-depth and nuanced introduction to the challenges of learning at a topflight academic institution, Dartmouth decided to expand the pre-orientation program to four weeks. Eighty-four incoming first-year students participated in this year’s pre-orientation program, which had the additional challenge of being conducted remotely.

“Students attending the four-week program will be much better prepared for the academic experience at Dartmouth,” says FYSEP Director Jay Davis. “Many are coming from high schools that had minimal online programs in the spring, and our summer session is helping them to transition to the Ivy League rigor they will encounter this fall. They’ve spent a lot of a time with professors, and on Zoom and the College’s Canvas platform, and they’re more prepared for what online learning looks like at Dartmouth. They have a belief that they belong here, that they can be confident here, and that Dartmouth is better because they are here.”

Beyond the expansion of pre-orientation, Dartmouth is enhancing FYSEP by training more student mentors who will provide ongoing support and by offering financial assistance to ensure equal access to all aspects of the Dartmouth experience. This includes funds for expenses not met through Dartmouth financial aid, such as eyeglasses and contact lenses, medical co-pays, professional attire for interviews, graduate and professional school test-preparation fees, and living expenses during unpaid internships.

Since its inception, FYSEP has repeatedly proven its ability to enhance students’ academic performance and to increase their use of Dartmouth resources and opportunities. FYSEP students have achieved a higher grade point average than their first-generation peers who did not participate in the program, and they are significantly more likely to leverage support resources such as the Academic Skills Center. First-generation students at Dartmouth have a six-year graduation rate of 94% , compared to a national average of less than 50 %.

Dartmouth’s decision to expand FYSEP was informed by insights gained over the past nine years, current research on first-generation and low-income student educational outcomes, nationwide benchmarking, Dartmouth’s participation in the College Transitions Collaborative and American Talent Initiatives, recent developments in best-in-class programs at peer institutions, and most importantly, feedback from students who have participated in FYSEP.

Yenny Dieguez ’20, who is now preparing for law school, says FYSEP was so important to her Dartmouth experience that she later became a program mentor and student director.

“When I first arrived on campus, I quickly became overwhelmed by all the changes, and it wasn’t long before I seriously began to question whether I belonged at a place like Dartmouth—especially considering how different my background was from that of other Dartmouth students,” she says. “FYSEP’s pre-orientation program was instrumental to my transition into college because it helped me understand that that my feelings were completely natural, while also guiding and teaching me how to seek out help, become aware of available resources and providing me with a real support network along the way.

”Above all, FYSEP taught me that my background was not a weakness, but a strength—and that places like Dartmouth benefit from FYSEP students who bring all sorts of different experiences to the table," she says.

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