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Celebrating Williams Firsts

Celebrating Williams Firsts

When Azaria Vargas ’22, a softball player from Bellmore, N.Y., first arrived at Williams College, she naturally sought out friendships on her team. Those connections only deepened when she and several teammates realized they shared an aspect of their identities in common—that of being the first in their families to attend a four-year college.

Vargas says it was reassuring to learn that her teammates sometimes struggled with the stress of navigating college life like she did—trying to untangle the acronyms of offices and programs, or figuring out how to access resources. They relied on each other for advice and support. Vargas wanted more first-gen students to have access to the same kinds of networks that she and her teammates formed.

“First-gen identity is not visible and does not often emerge in conversations,” she says. “There was no distinct pathway to those interactions.”

Wanting to “create a sense of visibility among first-gen student athletes,” Vargas connected with Rebecca Garcia, dean of Williams Firsts, a group of about 400 students who are the first in their families to receive a college degree, attend a U.S. institution of higher education or attend a highly selective college like Williams. Among the ideas Vargas and Garcia plan to implement is creating a mentoring network for students and alumni first-gen athletes to discuss everything from tips for thriving at Williams to job opportunities.

Connecting Williams Firsts with campus resources is a critical element of Garcia’s work. In August, incoming students and their families take part in pre-orientation programming to get to know the campus and its resources with the support of Firsts Orientation Leaders and dedicated staff from the dean’s office. A student-run board helps foster community by organizing workshops, trips and social events for Williams Firsts. The college also hosts a senior celebration, inviting families, professors, coaches, advisers and others who made a difference in the lives of Williams Firsts to celebrate the milestone of graduation.

But celebrating the identities of Williams Firsts and sharing their stories is equally—if not more—important, Garcia says.

“We really want to say, ‘Your story is unique,’ and with it come these amazing strengths that you bring to campus that actually makes Williams a better place to live and learn,” she says.

To that end, the college is taking part in the nationwide First-Generation College Celebration organized by the Center for First-generation Student Success. Held Nov. 6 to 12 at Williams, events include sessions about study away, networking with the team from the ’68 Center for Career Exploration, tea-time with the chaplains, and a number of other opportunities to celebrate and connect with Williams Firsts students hosted by various departments. Williams Firsts students and alumni are also taking part in an online conversation, “Belonging: Finding Home in Unexpected Places,” a collaboration between Williams Firsts Alumni Network, the dean’s office and the Williams Firsts student board.

Garcia is particularly excited about the variety of campus offices organizing or sponsoring  events for the celebration, including Junior Advisors, Integrated Wellbeing Services, the Writing Center, the Office of Campus Life, admission and student financial services, athletics and dining services. Several academic departments are participating as well, including biology, Latino/a studies, Environmental Studies, and math/statistics.

“This week of celebration is a snapshot of the many ways each department plays a role in the success of a Williams Firsts student and helps our students recognize that while their journey may be challenging at times, they are not alone,” Garcia says. “The hope is that, ultimately, these partnerships further conversations that allow us all to consider the ways we are supporting Firsts at Williams. It’s not just the Williams Firsts team supporting first-gens; it’s the entire campus.”

View the Williams Firsts Calendar for the complete schedule of events and activities.