VCU student Amber Brown standing in front of a wall of portraits
Amber Brown, a senior studying chemistry and anthropology, is one of 26 students featured in a new exhibit at James Branch Cabell Library that celebrates first-generation college students at VCU. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

New campus exhibit is an uplifting showcase for first-generation students

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Yessica Flores got lost on her first day at Virginia Commonwealth University. She was on campus for VCU’s Summer Scholars program and took a wrong turn and wound up blocks away from where she was supposed to be.

“Major, big-time lost,” said Flores, now a sophomore in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “And the GPS on my phone wasn’t working.”

Flores, then an incoming freshman, had only been on campus once before. She wound up calling Elizabeth Bambacus, Ph.D., the student engagement and summer studies administrator, for help. 

It was a metaphorical moment, Flores said. She was about to become the first person in her family to attend college, and she knew the years ahead would be full of challenges as she navigated class registration, financial aid and other new responsibilities — all without the help of a person at home who had done it before. Flores knew there would be times when she would feel lost. She did not realize her first reminder would be so literal.

“It was very metaphorical,” she said. “My first moments being here I realized the importance of actually knowing people. If I didn’t have that one person, I didn’t have anybody. I couldn’t call my mom, my GPS wasn’t working. I didn’t know any other staff member, I didn’t know my professor, other students. Nobody.”

Flores eventually found her way. She is studying psychology, with a minor in sociology, and now serves as a mentor to first-year first-generation students. This fall, she and 25 other first-generation students are also subjects of a new exhibit at James Branch Cabell Library that celebrates those who will be the first in their immediate family to graduate from college.

The exhibit, created by staff and faculty in the Division of Strategic Enrollment Management, features portraits of the students — and an inspirational quote from each — on vibrantly colored backgrounds spread over two walls on the library’s first floor. It was curated in advance of a national day celebrating the experiences and successes of first-generation college students on Nov. 8. 

“[We] wanted to showcase first-generation students and we want people to be able to identify with it,” said Jonathan Dodd, the exhibit designer. “We want it to entertain, and also to raise awareness.”

Portraits of VCU students hanging on a wall
The exhibit features portraits of first-generation VCU students — and an inspirational quote from each — on vibrantly colored backgrounds spread over two walls on the library’s first floor. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

Thirty-three percent of first-year VCU students are the first in their family to attend college. The exhibit is part of a larger effort, You First at VCU, to help those students navigate their university experience, said Daphne Rankin, Ph.D., associate vice provost for strategic enrollment management.

“We want to help first-generation students embrace their strengths, know that there are plenty of people here to help, use the resources we have — like learning support resources, faculty, university counseling, their advisers,” she said. “And we also want to help them get connected with other first-generation students.”

Rankin and Bambacus collected quotes from the students for the exhibit. Dodd, a School of the Arts alumnus and marketing specialist for strategic enrollment management, handled photos and design. Students in the exhibit represent Summer Scholars peer mentors, Altria Scholars program scholarship recipients, TRIO Student Support Services, and the You First at VCU student organization. 

“When I first saw it, I was amazed because I really loved how the colors were so bright and drawing people in,” said Amber Brown, one of the students featured in the exhibit.

Brown, a senior who aspires to attend medical school, is a first-generation student studying anthropology and chemistry. She viewed the full exhibit shortly after it was installed Nov. 1.

“Being able to read the quotes is really moving for me because these people go through the same thing,” she said. “It’s hard to come to college not knowing what to expect, or what to do, or what kind of questions to ask. I think we all go through that phase of, ‘Do I belong here? What am I doing here?’

“To be able to walk past that [exhibit] and be like, ‘Oh, I know that person — I didn’t know they were first-gen,’ and be able to read their quote, it’s really amazing. It's really motivating and uplifting for other first-generation students.” 

[We] wanted to showcase first-generation students and we want people to be able to identify with it. We want it to entertain, and also to raise awareness.

The exhibit is a platform for first-generation students to use their voices to help others, Bambacus said.

“It boils down to a sense of belonging, knowing that they belong here,” she said. “I tell the first-generation students that come to new student orientation, ‘When you sit in a lecture hall, you can feel confident knowing that one out of every three people in that room will be the first in their family to graduate from college.’ This exhibit gives that visibility. My hope is that it provides a sense of ease and belonging to students.”

Flores’ quote, encased in a white word bubble, encourages first-generation students to embrace their role as trailblazers, and ends with a powerful statement: “You are the beginning of a legacy.” 

“My mother came from El Salvador [and] I’ve heard my parents’ story since I was a little kid of how they sacrificed their language, their culture, their family, everything, to get here,” Flores said. “My mom didn’t get to go to college and now I am where she wanted to be. It’s part of her legacy, too. And if she can push through and get me here, I can push through and get past grad school. That’s why I ended with [the idea of] legacy.’ My sister is 8. She got here and saw the exhibit and said, ‘I want my own poster up here. I want to be like you. I can’t wait until I get to VCU.’”

Flores hopes the exhibit inspires viewers to embrace their individual story.

“I hope their takeaway is to always remember where they come from, and always think about where they want to go and how they are going to get there,” she said.