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Lifting the Voices of First-Generation Students

Jamie Glanton Costello, Massachusetts College of Art and Design / The Center / June 12, 2024

Massachusetts College of Art and Design first-gen panel

Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) began lifting the voices of first-generation students this academic year by hosting a panel of first-generation alumni. This diverse group shared their experiences as first-generation students at MassArt. As you can imagine, their experiences were diverse and unique yet several themes emerged during this conversation. All participants discussed the importance of finding community while a student at MassArt. This took many different forms - community in terms of the classroom, studio, and their living space were highlighted. One panelist stated that they, “...had to learn a lot about myself–how to situate myself in a room, how to take up space, and how to claim my own belonging.” Another panelist followed up with, “As a first-generation college student, you don’t always know what the questions are you need to be asking–you’re just trying to get in the room and take up space.” They stated that learning how to take up space felt unique to them as first-generation students.

Further, they discussed feeling different or othered within the community; most felt that everyone else knew what to expect from their college experience. One panelist stated, “It’s important for us to push back on the mainstream definition of imposter syndrome and really target the environments that make you feel like an imposter. It is very easy to manipulate or control people when they constantly feel like they have to prove that they are worthy of being in that space.”

At different times throughout the panel, all panelists acknowledged different faculty and administrators that made a difference in their experience and helped them to succeed. They laughed, pointed to people in the audience and thanked them for their support. As this was a panel comprised of students of color, it is not surprising that they noted the importance of BIPOC faculty, staff, and others in supporting their success. In fact several of the panelists specifically mentioned a fellow student who led the Black Artists Union as being instrumental in their finding a sense of belonging at the college.

The participants offered various nuggets of advice but the one that resonated with the entire audience was:

I’ve learned that so much in life comes down to what you believe. If you believe you can and if you believe you can’t, both are correct. So you have to make a choice. And I think the more you practice that choice, for better or worse, it will affect your behaviors.

This panel was a great opportunity for first generation students to hear about the successes and struggles of first generation alumni. As is common in our community, the alumni were generous in offering their time and support to current first-generation students. 

For more information on Massachusetts College of Art and Design's approach, please visit their website here.