The first cohort of Freshman Scholars at Yale graduates
On May 23, 2017, the 316th commencement of Yale University was held on Old Campus. Of the over 1,332 undergraduates graduating that day, 34 students stood out. These 34 graduates in the class of 2017 were members of the inaugural class of the Freshman Scholars at Yale program, their graduation marking the first commencement of students who began their Yale careers as participants in Freshman Scholars at Yale.
Launched in summer 2013, Freshman Scholars at Yale – now called First-year Scholars at Yale (FSY) – is Yale’s summer bridge program for incoming first-years who are the first in their families to attend college, had low-income backgrounds growing up, or otherwise come from segments of the population who might not traditionally have had access to elite institutions. Over the past few decades, Yale has encouraged more students from these backgrounds to apply, thereby supporting the University’s mission to make the campus a “diverse community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni.”
However, with this diverse pool of incoming students came equally diverse levels of access to resources and college preparatory information. Groups of Yale students alerted the admissions office to these disparities, especially in regards to how they affected incoming first-years. By summer 2013, the admissions office had devised a solution to their queries: a pilot program where a select group of rising first-years would live in the dormitories of Ezra Stiles College for five weeks while getting connected with campus resources and completing their first Yale course credit, English 114.
Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan, the administrator who has been involved with FSY the longest, said the program was “instantly successful” after that first summer and that he and his colleagues saw the “immediate positive impact” on the students who participated.
As of August 2017, FSY has completed its fifth session. The program has almost doubled, now serving about 60 first-years each summer. According to Burgwell Howard, dean of student engagement and associate vice president for student life, “one of the exciting additions to FSY this summer was our partnership with the Online Experiences for Yale Scholars (ONEXYS) program to help students with their QR preparation, so that they could feel confident approaching STEM-related courses.”
Howard adds, “Since FSY’s establishment other schools within the Ivy League have established similar programs and we are actively consulting with other colleges about how they may establish programs like FSY and ONEXYS for their own communities.”
The most important metric of FSY’s success, undoubtedly, is its students and their perceptions of the program’s usefulness. Dean April Ruiz of Hopper College has brought this perspective to her position as the current dean of FSY: “As someone who went to Yale College as a first-generation, low-income student myself (I was Morse Class of 2005), I understand the value of this early start. I wish such a program had existed when I was an undergraduate to help me to see early on that I deserved to be at Yale and that I could and should take advantage of all the college had to offer.”
Yale’s youngest alumni: where are they now?
Five alumni from this first class of FSY describe the paths that brought them to Yale.
Mimi Pham, who is beginning a position with Capital One’s in-house strategy team in Washington, D.C., this August.: “I’m originally from Tampa, Florida. I attended Hillsborough High School, a public high school in Tampa that offered the International Baccalaureate program. Though neither of my parents attended college, I knew – for as long as I can remember – that I would one day go to college. My parents always stressed the importance of education to me (and to my younger brother, who will be a sophomore at Yale this fall), so I’d always dreamed of going to a school like Yale.” At Yale, Pham majored in history and economics, and was a leader in the Asian American Cultural Center, the Vietnamese Student Association, Morse College, and Senior Class Council, where she was co-chair and also the treasurer for the class of 2017.
Rubén Vega Perez, who will continue his education at the Yale School of Public Health toward a Master’s in Public Health before beginning his M.D. at the Icahn School of Medicine: “I’m originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, and I grew up in the San Diego-Tijuana binational metropolitan area. I attended a high school that by some measures may be considered ‘underperforming.’ I never quite imagined I would be applying or attending an Ivy League. My parents did not go to college nor spoke English, so I never really learned about that at home. In my high school, the resources and encouragement were usually just to attend college, and oftentimes those colleges found in our city. Luckily, I attended my first info session for Yale as a high school sophomore. This sparked my interest and eventually several mentors encouraged me to apply.” At Yale, Perez majored in ethics, politics & economics, and was a counselor and then senior leader for the FSY program.
Dustin Vesey, who is studying for the LSAT until he departs on an English Teaching Fulbright to Malaysia.: “I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, always moving between my mom’s two-bedroom house and the trailer park where my dad lived. My childhood instilled in me a sense of independence and resilience, and I wouldn’t trade the days I spent wandering around at five- years-old kicking cans for anything. My mom always pushed me to do well in school and drove me to the area’s better high school, Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. I never really gave a thought to college, and certainly not to East Coast schools, until my mom pushed me to apply to Questbridge. That was the catalyst that sent me down the road I am on today.” At Yale, Vesey majored in political science with a focus on international relations, and was manager of the Jonathan Edwards buttery and captain of the alpine ski team.
Adriana Embus, who has moved to Los Angeles to work for the non-profit that partially funded her Yale education, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, to help secure access to competitive colleges for future students: “I’m from a very small town in Georgia. For high school, I was blessed enough to have a scholarship to a local prep school. I was the only Latina there, and there were only a few other students of color in addition to me. I had to express my Latinidad outside of school. It was really hard for me, but I saw attending this private high school as a ticket to go to a top-tier school (read: University of Georgia or maybe University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill). Before Yale, my longshot had been UGA Honors College, which was close-by, a plus for me because I’m the only child to a single mom. I was really focused on staying home and being there for her. Fortunately, I had a great guidance counselor who played a role and encouraged me to apply to the Questbridge fellowship program. I was matched to Yale through Questbridge, meaning I was blind in the application process, so before FSY, I hadn’t even visited Yale.” At Yale, Embus majored in ethnicity, race & migration, and was a freshman counselor for Timothy Dwight College, an active leader in La Casa Cultural and the Afro-American Cultural Center, and president of Omega Phi Beta (a multicultural, Latina sorority).
Jamar Williams, who awaits the start of his position as a Federal Human Capital Business Analyst with Deloitte & Touche in Washington, D.C.: “I’m a first-generation college student. I come from a middle-class family, and I was born and raised in the Seattle, Washington area. I went to a public high school located near a substantial military base, which meant that there was a good amount of diversity in terms of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, etc. The grand majority of the students at my school apply to our state school (University of Washington), which is a fantastic institution. Growing up, going to college was always sort of expected of me, though my parents never explicitly told me that. I started researching some colleges early sophomore year and realized that there was more out there than just University of Washington and the other Washington colleges. I never thought I would be accepted to schools like Yale, so I focused mainly on other state schools and some private institutions. Eventually, I gained enough courage to start looking at other Ivy League schools and convinced myself that it wouldn’t hurt to try. Though no one discouraged me from applying, I didn’t receive much encouragement either.” At Yale, Williams was a Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies major, and was involved in Yale Concert Band, Davenport Pops Orchestra, many community service programs, and Steppin’ Out, Yale’s step team.
The value of FSY: inclusion does not stop at admissions
According to Ruiz, “a program like FSY is essential in making sure that inclusion does not stop at admissions. The university is working toward ensuring all students who demonstrate the capacity to make the most of at Yale education are admitted and matriculate here. FSY aims to help students to make a productive and positive transition once they arrive.”
The five FSY participants mentioned above attest to that long-term value of FSY. Not only does FSY make resources, information, and mentorship available to its participants but also has one lasting, far less visible impact. Explains Embus: “When people say FSY, I think ‘family.’”
The students recount countless examples of their fellow FSY participants showing up to support each other over the following four years. Their class had a particularly trying challenge early on when the first dean of First-year Scholars at Yale, Leslie Wooddard of Hopper College, died suddenly during their freshman year. The students recall receiving the news at 4 p.m., and by 5 p.m. that same day, the whole inaugural class of FSY had already convened to support each other.
For any class of FSY, though, there is a bond that goes beyond the five weeks spent together. “Being a first-generation student is an invisible kind of identity, so I am grateful to FSY for connecting me with other students who could better understand and talk with me about our shared identity and experiences,” said Pham.
Williams framed the social experience of FSY another way: “If I had to sum up my experience of FSY with one word, I would call it ‘liberating.’ That was my first time traveling by myself to the other side of the country, meeting people from all over with different backgrounds, exploring subjects that I never knew existed in high school, navigating my sexuality, developing the very beginnings of my intellectual and academic vocabulary, finding ways to express myself, coming to terms with my mixed heritage, etc. FSY gave me not only the opportunity to transition into the rigor of college life, especially at Yale, but also the wiggle room to explore for the sake of exploring whatever I so desired.”
The academic boost offered by FSY is also considerable, according to its alumni. “If I thrived at Yale,” said Vega Perez, “I can trace it back to that summer before freshman year. The academics were very rigorous, but that was the point of the program. At the end of it all, I could really see my writing improving. For the first time, I truly felt prepared for college. And the professors were so dedicated and invested in seeing us learn. My English 114 professor continues to be a mentor and friend.”
Quinlan agrees, as he thinks the real power of FSY is “the fact that we can measure the results. We know students who participate in the program are doing better academically and are more confident with the use of on-campus resources and asking for advice and mentorship.”
This August marks the opening of Yale’s two new residential colleges, Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin – a development with a ripple effect throughout the university. FSY is planning for those swells. Howard assured that, “we are exploring some of the future needs for FSY, including how we might look to gradually expand the cohort size to better accommodate the interest, and in acknowledgement that the incoming classes to Yale will be slightly larger, so there will likely be corresponding demand for opportunities like FSY.”