Last week I was asked to speak to a group of first-generation college students at Georgetown University. In 2004, Georgetown alums founded a program called the Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP), which provides first-generation and/or low-income students with financial support as well as mentorship, guidance, opportunities to network, and other resources as they navigate the higher education system.
As I headed up to 37th and O in a cab, I realized that I had not been to my alma mater in 14 years! I got lost going to the Healy Building (which, by the way, is the first building looking at you once you pass through the gate) and I was reminiscing about the time I spent working in the gate house for the Community Action Coalition.
Most of the GSP students were of color, and all of them had these fascinating internships and the excitement of adventure that only college students can have. I was surprised how many of them came to the session, given that it was pouring outside and at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night. I talked about how I had taken an unbeaten path in life and didn’t become a lawyer or a doctor (or go into the foreign service, as I had planned). They asked me great questions:
- Should we go straight to graduate school or get some work experience?
- Should we become experts at something or is being a generalist ok?
- How do you balance having a family and your work life? (The answer is not very well, by the way.)
- What were some of the struggles you had when you first started working?
- When did you know you wanted to go into education versus something else?
- Did you really learn what you needed to know in college?
- How did you find such good mentors to help you in life?
- What do you really do all day long?
Since it began, GSP has supported over 1,000 students, and among those who participate, 97 percent graduate. In a study led by Professor Richard Light at Harvard University, first-generation Georgetown students said that GSP was more helpful in their transition to college than their professors, the deans and even their friends. This is a great example of how universities can address the issues I raised in my blog after reading Paul Tough’s article in the New York Times. These are the students who I am confident will have the perseverance to be successful because they have the support they need from their peers and from the university. Congratulations to Georgetown on a job well done!