New Kessler Scholars Program at Brown will expand support for first-gen, low-income students

Building on the success of the University’s existing FLiSP program, a new five-year, $1 million grant will create the Kessler Scholars Program, a cohort-based model that bolsters support for first-generation, low-income students.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Each year since 2018, the First-Generation College and Low-Income Scholars Program (FLiSP) at Brown University has offered 16 undocumented, first-generation college and low-income students with a cohort-based first-year experience that provides support, builds community and amplifies the knowledge and strengths those students bring with them when they come to Brown.

Now, a new five-year, $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation will enable Brown to increase the number of students served, broaden the program across the four-year undergraduate experience, and expand support for participants.

The grant will transition FLiSP into the Kessler Scholars Program at Brown and add the University to the Kessler Scholars Collaborative, a diverse network of colleges and universities dedicated to supporting first-generation students through direct financial support and cohort-based programs. The expanded program will provide coordinated academic, financial, personal and professional support for first-generation, low-income students throughout all four years of their undergraduate education at Brown.

Brown is one of 10 new additions to the collaborative, joining six schools already home to Kessler Scholars programs. The American Talent Initiative and Kessler Scholars Collaborative announced the new members and the accompanying grant support on Tuesday, April 12.

“We are thrilled to be able to sustain and advance the wonderful FLiSP program in the U-FLi Center to support undocumented, first-generation and low-income students in partnership with the Kessler Scholar Collaborative,” said Dean of the College Rashid Zia. “This will expand on an initiative already underway at Brown, while we join a community of partner institutions driven by the same mission. We hope and expect that what we learn through the Kessler Scholars Collaborative will help transform the way we welcome and support students at Brown.”

After a year of planning and transition, the transition of FLiSP into the Kessler Scholars Program will take effect in Fall 2023. Beginning that year, Brown will welcome a new cohort of 20 students to the program annually. By the time the grant expires in 2027, there will be a total of 80 Kessler scholars on campus.

What we’ve seen is that many of [the scholars] step into leadership positions and then give back to the community in some way — they’ll share the sources and knowledge they gained through the program.

Julio Reyes Program Director of the U-FLi Center
 
Headshot of Julio Reyes

The expansion will also extend the program across all four years of each student’s time at Brown, rather than just their first. Funding from the grant will also increase financial support for students in the program — stipend amounts will be doubled, each scholar will receive guaranteed financial support for one summer research opportunity, and the $2,900 summer earnings contribution (a required contribution from nearly all Brown undergraduates who receive financial aid) will be waived.

“With our students themselves leading the way, Brown’s commitment to supporting undocumented, first-generation college and low-income students has transformed from a nascent student-driven effort to an integrated network of resources and a thriving community in less than a decade,” said Vice President of Campus Life Eric Estes. “In joining the Kessler Scholars community, we’re excited to advance the early success of the U-FLi Center’s FLiSP work, which ensures that students benefit from personalized advising and support, cohort-based activities throughout their college experience, and programs designed to elevate the unique and enduring strengths these students bring to the Brown campus.”

Building on Brown’s FLiSP program

In 2016, after several years of student-driven efforts to expand support for first-generation college students, Brown opened what’s known today as the Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center — or the U-FLi Center. Through collaborative events, asset-based advising and navigational tools, first-year students in the center’s FLiSP cohort spend one year creating meaningful connections among each other, developing leadership skills, building expertise about campus resources, and establishing a collective of supportive peers, faculty and staff. 

“Our work is to help them feel like they belong here and help them say, ‘My experiences back at home and before coming to Brown are not a weakness; they’re a strength that will help me make it through this experience,’” said Julio Reyes, program director at the U-FLi Center, who will help lead the implementation and development of the Kessler Scholars Program along with U-FLi Student Success Coordinator Renata Mauriz.

Students at U-FLi Center
Students gather to celebrate the opening of the U-FLi Center. The center's scholars program will receive a significant boost from a $1 million grant awarded to the University as part of its membership in the Kessler Scholars Collaborative.

In their first year, students in the cohort attend gatherings every two weeks, usually in collaboration with a campus partner like Counseling and Psychological Services or deans from Student Support Services. Instead of a typical information session, the scholars program engages different offices in co-creating a facilitated dialogue with students.

“The process that we go through with our partners ensures that students get to know them a bit more deeply,” Reyes said, “so that one day they can say, ‘Oh, I remember that dean or that professor or that staff member’ and talk to them about what they’re experiencing.”

Students are also paired with a dedicated advisor throughout the program. They meet every two weeks to set goals, reflect on the strengths of their personal identities, or ensure that they’re on track to meet their academic and personal goals, whatever they may be.

“It’s very holistic,” Reyes said. “We talk about what’s happening back home, their experiences here, coursework, relationships with their roommates, all of it. We talk about almost everything. By the end of the year, we’ve developed a really, really good relationship with our scholars.”

By spending their first year in the program building a reliable support base and increasing familiarity with the community, students are well-positioned to use those academic and co-curricular resources to make the most out of their time at Brown.

With the expansion enabled by the Kessler Scholars Program, the types of advising students have access to can adapt as they progress through the four-year program; second- and third-year scholars may spend more time exploring research or fellowship opportunities, gaining hands-on experience through internships or community engagement initiatives, or becoming peer mentors, Reyes said. The fourth year can focus largely on the transition to life after Brown, whether that means launching a career or exploring graduate education opportunities.

“Initiatives like FLiSP and now the Kessler Scholars Program are so important because students can connect in a place where they can support others while also being supported themselves,” Reyes said. “What we’ve seen is that many of them step into leadership positions and then give back to the community in some way — they’ll share the sources and knowledge they gained through the program.”

I left the program knowing that I am very much deserving of the place that I’m in, and I’m more than capable of existing here ... the center knows that we already come here with so many strengths.

Heidy Mejia-Puerta Undergraduate Community Engagement Coordinator at the U-FLi Center, Class of 2022.5
 
Headshot of Heidy Mejia-Puerta

That was certainly the case for Heidy Mejia-Puerta, a senior education concentrator who was a member of the first FLiSP cohort. As a first-generation, low-income, Latinx and LGBTQ student coming to Brown from rural eastern Oregon, Mejia-Puerta felt as though her transition to the University might be overwhelming. She heard about the U-FLi Center and its scholars program and thought it might be a good way to meet other students. It ended up being much more.

“I left the program knowing that I am very much deserving of the place that I’m in, and I’m more than capable of existing here, even if there are moments of discomfort,” Mejia-Puerta said. “That’s one of the greatest things about the framing of this program — the center knows that we already come here with so many strengths. We’re not empty vessels.”

As a second-year student, Mejia-Puerta drew inspiration from juniors and seniors she met at the center, who she said were forthcoming, friendly and excited to share information and opportunities with others. She applied for the position of undergraduate community engagement coordinator and has spent the past three years helping fellow U-FLi students navigate and connect with University resources, which she said is the most fulfilling work she’s ever done.

“Move forward with confidence and know that you’re going to succeed,” Mejia-Puerta said she tells new U-FLi students on campus. “There have been plenty of U-FLi students before you, there will be plenty after, and we believe in you. We’re all rooting for you.”

Reyes, Estes and Zia said that as the University works to establish the Kessler Scholars Program, it will also explore the best ways to ensure sustainable financial support to continue and expand the programs for generations to come.

“First-generation and low-income students bring so much talent and knowledge to campus,” Zia said. “ They are remarkable students whose contributions  we want to support and celebrate through community and connection.”

Reyes echoed the sentiment.

“By the time this grant is over, I hope that people will see the real impact of this program and feel connected to the work we’re doing,” Reyes said. “Brown has so many exceptional U-FLi students, and I think it’s our duty to support them as best we can.”

About the Kessler Scholars Collaborative and the American Talent Initiative

Founded in 2008 at the University of Michigan, the Kessler Scholars Collaborative is an initiative of the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation intended to promote success for first-generation college students nationwide. Kessler Scholars programs connect first-generation students with critical resources and opportunities, including individualized support and cohort-based workshops and programming designed to foster academic, professional and personal growth. Early results at Michigan indicate the promise of this model, with the Kessler Scholars graduating cohort attaining a four-year graduation rate of 83% — 8 percentage points higher than their first-generation peers (75%) and virtually on par with their continuing-generation peers (84%).

With the addition of Brown and nine other new members, the complete list member institutions now includes Bates College; Brown University; Centre College; Cornell University; Johns Hopkins University; Ohio State University; Queens College; Saint Mary’s College (Indiana); St. Francis College; Syracuse University; the University of California, Riverside; the University of Dayton; the University of Michigan; the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; the University of Pittsburgh; and Washington University in St. Louis.

The American Talent Initiative is a Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported collaboration between the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, Ithaka S+R and more than 125 top colleges and universities nationwide committed to enrolling, supporting and graduating more than 50,000 talented students from lower-income backgrounds by 2025. To realize this milestone, ATI facilitates research, practice-sharing, and communications campaigns around presidential leadership, access and affordability, community college transfer, student veteran engagement, and student success and equity in the academic experience. Brown joined ATI in 2017.