If you’re among the first in your family to go to college, the life waiting for you after graduation can seem fairly fuzzy. Preparing to step away from the familiar college world can be daunting, which makes it a good time to reflect on how you were able to accomplish all you’ve done. This year’s graduating class of Kessler Presidential Scholars is standing precisely on that precipice, and they realize they’ve learned a lot of vital skills from the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program.

Next fall, senior Kaitlyn Van Riper will be a student at Western Michigan University’s Homer Stryker School of Medicine, but there were certainly moments along the way when she doubted that she was medical school material.

“When I started college in 2015, I had big dreams and absolutely no idea the work it was going to take to achieve them,” Van Riper recalls. “I spent a lot of time wondering if medical school was even a practical choice for someone like me, a first-generation college student from rural Michigan.” But now here she is, four years later, ready to begin.

“Many of us were first-gen students from underprivileged backgrounds,” says senior Erica Gonzalez-Paramo, who has accepted a consulting analyst position with Accenture in Detroit. “We came to U-M hoping and expecting to do well, but soon after setting foot on campus we realized the playing field wasn’t even.”

One of the challenges for first-generation students, and for the universities that recruit and admit them, is pairing the right combination of economic and academic support with the guidance that students need to navigate the invisible rules and expectations that many other students acquired before they even arrived on campus. At U-M, this is where LSA’s Kessler Scholars Program can make a world of difference.

“Being a Kessler Scholar was more than a significant part of my college experience,” Gonzalez-Paramo says. “It defined it.”

Get With the Program

The Kessler Presidential Scholarship Program provides four years of significant financial support to outstanding students who are among the first in their families to attend college. The financial support is critical, of course, but the program’s wrap-around assistance is as essential to students’ success. One-on-one coaching, peer mentoring, leadership development, community service, and social events all develop essential skills and contribute to creating an inclusive community where students feel like they belong.

Founded at U-M ten years ago by Fred Wilpon (A.B. 1958) and Judy Kessler Wilpon (A.B. 1958), the evidence-based program has used its own data, insights, and experiences to refine the program’s components to better meet students’ needs. The program has become a model that the Wilpons are expanding to other universities. This fall a Kessler Presidential Scholars Program will launch at Cornell University.

Gonzalez-Paramo credits the Kessler Scholars Program with providing “the resources and support to play the game. It gave me the confidence, emotional support, academic resources, and the professional skills I needed to navigate U-M and begin my professional career.”

Above: At the Kessler Scholars Senior and Alumni Dinner, Kaitlyn Van Riper is celebrated as one of the soon-to-be graduates.

“Being a Kessler Scholar gave me a community of people who not only shared my background and experiences, but believed my dreams were possible even when I didn’t,” Van Riper says.

That community is bigger than the students in the program and the administrators who run it. Successful authors, business leaders, artists, and even U-M’s very own basketball coach engaged with the Kessler Scholars, telling them that their passions and goals were valid and attainable. “We had real life examples of how individuals from challenging backgrounds made their own dreams come true,” Van Riper says.

That belief in someone else’s talents and aspirations is one Van Riper has been able to pass along by serving as a peer mentor to a first-year Kessler Scholar over the past academic year. And that relationship goes both ways, too, she says.

“I might be the mentor, but my mentee has taught me way more than I could ever offer her,” she says. “It’s also opened my eyes to the amazing community and support I’ve had, and that has played a huge role in my decision about where to attend medical school.”

Knowing What You Need

Learning how to create the conditions in which you thrive is one of the skills the Kessler Scholars have mastered together. For seniors like Elijah Taylor, it all comes back to having a community where you feel like you belong – and taking advantage of the opportunities to develop and nurture the connections within it.

“The program’s events are a way for students to catch up with one another and foster our bonds,” Taylor says. “Along with the valuable information we gain from the event itself, I feel as though I meet a new friend or make a new connection every time. Or I can catch up with other Kesslers and get or give advice on how to manage school.”

This knowledge will help Taylor in his next endeavor, as a graduate student at Northwestern’s Interdisciplinary Biological Science Program. “My most important takeaway from my time as a Kessler Scholar,” he affirms, “is the importance of an on-campus community.”

The same is true for senior Richard Nguyen.

“It's important to be with people that support you when you have 500,000 things to do, when you accidentally wear a t-shirt and jeans to a formal dinner, or when you just, in general, don't know what you're doing,” he says. Having experienced that acceptance and support himself, Nguyen is paying it forward by working at North Star, a camp for children with health challenges, after graduation.

Nguyen spent a week at North Star the previous summer, where he “absolutely fell in love with everything about the camp – except for the mosquitoes.” From his time as a Kessler Scholar, he recognizes the value these kids get from being with others who’ve endured similar struggles and experiences. For himself, he sees North Star as a first step toward becoming a doctor, and he plans to take a gap year working as an EMT before going on to medical school. Another lesson he’s learned? “One step at a time.”

But even in his final weeks as an undergrad, Nguyen was committed to cultivating the Kessler community. That included advising his two mentees “even though neither really ever listened to me when I told them they need to sleep more than three hours a day.”

But there is some advice that Nguyen knows will stick.

“No matter what you’re doing or where you are in life, surround yourself with good people,” Nguyen says. “And there’s plenty of them in Kessler.”


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Top photo by Scott Soderberg; inline photo Lon Horwedel. Michigan Photography