‘Family for four years:’ Brown welcomes first cohort of Kessler Scholars
Building on its support for first-generation and low-income students, Brown launched the Kessler Scholars Program this fall to expand resources, advising and community support throughout students’ undergraduate education.
Brown first-year students Kelly Nguyen, left, and Johan Beltre are two of 18 members of Brown's inaugural cohort of Kessler Scholars. Photos by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — First-year student Kelly Nguyen is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and grew up in Los Angeles County in a single-parent household. Her research interests lie at the intersection of artificial intelligence and medicine, and she’s considering a concentration in computational biology. When she’s not in class, she’s often across the city volunteering as a medical interpreter at the Rhode Island Free Clinic.
Fellow Class of 2027 student Johan Beltre moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States five years ago. His family settled in Paterson, New Jersey, where he learned English in high school. A member of Fashion@Brown’s makeup team and Students for Educational Equity, Beltre says his extracurriculars reflect his interest to freely explore academics, including music, chemistry, public health and visual arts.
For as varied as their experiences and interests are, Nguyen and Beltre share a special bond as members of Brown’s inaugural 18-student cohort of Kessler Scholars: “We are shaped by our backgrounds, and we have to navigate very different experiences than others might,” Beltre said.
Launched in Fall 2023, Brown’s Kessler Scholars Program provides coordinated academic, financial and personal support for first-generation and low-income students through all four years of their undergraduate education. The program was a big draw for Beltre, a first-generation student who was admitted through Brown’s early decision program and immediately applied to join the first Kessler cohort.
The Kessler program has been amazing at creating close relationships between its students. I’ve made so many friends and valuable connections that I will cherish even past college. They’re like family — I know they’ll be helping me throughout my life, and I will help them, too.
Kessler Scholar, Class of 2027
“Having a dedicated program like Kessler allows us space to acknowledge our specific experiences and connect with others who have gone through similar things,” Beltre said.
Managed by Brown’s Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center (U-FLi Center), the Kessler Scholars Program aims to build on the knowledge and strengths its participants bring to Brown, while anchoring them with support during their first year and evolving to provide additional resources across their educational journey, said U-FLi Center Director Julio Reyes.
“I think the real piece that we hope keeps students connected to our center is the sense of trust and support that they receive in the first year,” Reyes said.
Enabled by a five-year, $1 million grant received in 2022 from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation, Brown’s launch of the program makes the University one of 16 members schools in the national Kessler Scholars Collaborative. For Brown, the Kessler Scholars Program represents the evolution and growth of the previous First-Generation College and Low-Income Scholars Program, known on campus as FLiSP, which offered a similar experience to 16 first-year students each year since 2018. Now, the Kessler Scholars Program spans all four years of undergraduate study and in future years will accommodate larger cohorts of 20 members. To support the expanded program, the center hired a new Kessler Scholars Program manager.
Funding from the grant also increased financial support for participants: In their first year, each scholar will receive a $2,000 academic year stipend for completing program requirements, as well as guaranteed funding for one summer SPRINT opportunity to support research or internships. In addition, the $2,900 student summer earnings contribution (a required contribution from nearly all Brown undergraduates who receive financial aid) will be waived.
The increased funding, programming and duration of the program promise to build upon the successes the FLiSP program enabled, Reyes said.
“These are strengths that we’re carrying into this program, and we hope that we’ll have similar outcomes for our Kessler Scholars,” Reyes said. “We hope and expect students to thrive even more, because now we’re working with them a lot more intentionally over a longer period of time.”
“A lot of the people I’ve met through the program are very unapologetic about it,” said Kessler Scholar Kelly Nguyen. “They’re proud. They’re excited to say, ‘I’ve come this far, and I’ve overcome these struggles.’ I like that — they’re turning something that was previously seen as a weakness into a point of strength.”
Laying groundwork toward graduation
The program is rooted in intensive first-year support that ultimately evolves toward self-directed, leadership-oriented responsibilities as each student moves through their undergraduate education. Year one is most critical, according to Kessler Scholars Program manager Jay Salcedo, as program leaders reinforce knowledge of campus resources and build trust so that students feel comfortable using them during their time at Brown.
Students in the cohort gather every other week to engage in dialogue with Salcedo and a selected campus partner, like Counseling and Psychological Services, Health and Wellness, or Student Support Services. Regular community outings enable the scholars to get to know Providence, beyond the Brown campus.
The scholars also engage in biweekly one-on-one advising sessions. In the first session, Salcedo works with each student to create a profile that establishes their interests and values, determines their mentorship priorities and identifies which approaches to advising they’d like to incorporate in the future. Salcedo keeps the sessions open-ended. Sometimes, the focus is a structured, step-by-step academic plan; other times, she and a student might spend an hour doing guided meditations or talking about life while they walk around campus.
“It’s really interesting, because usually when you have an advisor, you don't see their notes and you don’t get to decide what gets talked about,” Salcedo said. “But Kessler Scholars have complete access to their profile, and they’re encouraged to go in there, make changes and add things to make sessions uniquely their own.”
Reyes said the advising component of the program is important for U-FLi students, who in many cases feel obligated to provide financially for their family or community. That can pressure them to pursue an educational or career path that isn’t necessarily what they are most interested in or passionate about.
“I want to have students voice that the program helped them find a sense of purpose, and that we helped navigate them toward achieving particular goals and dreams that they have for themselves,” Reyes said. “I want to help them realize that they can make an impact on their communities by being their most authentic self.”
For Nguyen, that attitude came as a welcome surprise, and she is heartened to see fellow cohort members embracing their identities with pride.
“A lot of the people I’ve met through the program are very unapologetic about it,” Nguyen said. “They’re proud. They’re excited to say, ‘I’ve come this far, and I’ve overcome these struggles.’ I like that — they’re turning something that was previously seen as a weakness into a point of strength.”
Peer mentorship is another key pillar. Currently, the cohort has two peer mentors, both former FLiSP scholars. The number of mentors will increase as the program grows and the University welcomes new cohorts annually, swelling to as many as 78 Kessler Scholars on campus in 2026-27.
“I feel like the family's just going to get bigger and bigger,” Beltre said. “We’ll be able to help the new students who are just coming in feel that same sense of belonging that the program has created for us throughout this year.”
That’s exactly what Salcedo and Reyes hope. As they develop plans for the second, third and fourth years, Reyes said the focus will shift toward positioning older scholars as mentors while ensuring the cohort continues to use appropriate academic and career resources at Brown — like Fellowships@Brown or the relaunched Center for Career Exploration — and preparing them for life after graduation.
“If we’re able to cultivate leadership skills with our scholars… our hope is that they'll pass on these resources and instill that knowledge in others,” Reyes said. “These students want to see each other succeed and grow not only as students, but also as people. Every day, I see constant reciprocal support that they’re offering each other.”
A home away from home
What sets Kessler apart from other programs isn’t just what it offers, but how it’s offered.
Each biweekly cohort gathering begins with a shared meal. The conversation then begins in “circle process” — a communication style with roots in Indigenous culture, in which all participants have the chance to be heard and the emphasis is placed on collective learning, Salcedo said. The group begins and ends every gathering with check-in and check-out questions related to the topic at hand.
Salcedo said she prioritizes care in each workshop and meeting, reminding participants that the support they receive doesn’t have to be limited to academics or finances.
“I want to make sure they know that this is a family they will have for four years,” she said. “I’m definitely trying to build a home away from home for all of the students in the program.”
For Beltre, it’s working. He said he’s excited for what the next few years will offer, and he couldn’t be more thrilled about the people with whom he’ll gets to spend that time.
“The Kessler program has been amazing at creating close relationships between its students,” Beltre said. “I’ve made so many friends and valuable connections that I will cherish even past college. They’re like family — I know they’ll be helping me throughout my life, and I will help them, too.”