Embarking on some new adventure, what person doesn’t close their eyes and imagine themselves already there, doing it? The first thing I’ll do when I get to Ann Arbor is find the football stadium. As soon as I move into my new room, I’m setting up the stereo, blasting Heart’s Barracuda, and ordering takeout. Even if it’s something you’ve never done—even when it takes you somewhere you’ve never been—people still tend to paint an inner picture of what their future life will be like.

When it’s something like going to college—especially if no one else in your family has done it—what you’re expecting might be wildly different from what you find once you get to campus. Most first-year students discover their first semesters are full of things they anticipated and things that came as a surprise, and this was the experience of many first-year Kessler Presidential Scholars.

“For all students, college requires tackling a lot of unfamiliar things, whether that means new academic challenges or doing your own laundry,” says Gail Gibson, director of the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program. “For first-generation students, those new challenges can be all the more puzzling because there is not a parent who can easily serve as a college guide. By working closely with first-year Kessler Scholars from their very first days on campus, we're able to make sure they get the right kinds of supports from the right people."

Established by Fred Wilpon and Judy Kessler Wilpon, the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program provides four years of significant financial support for academically talented students who are among the first in their families to attend college. Along with financial assistance, the program offers other essential supports, such as peer mentoring, social and alumni events, and leadership development opportunities that help to cultivate a tight and supportive community of students.

This fall, for the first time, the program offered a first-year seminar for Kessler Scholars through the Comprehensive Studies Program. The course, "Unlocking the U," introduced students to faculty members, college leaders, and campus resources, and even provided a tour of Burton Memorial Tower. Perhaps the most useful benefit of the class, Gibson said, was to create a weekly space for Kessler scholars to talk candidly with each other about everything from academic questions to concerns about campus climate.

“When I was accepted to U-M, I thought all of my work was done,” says Amber Brewer. “My naivety makes me laugh now, but I actually thought I had left the brunt of the hard academic work back in high school.”

Now, Brewer says, “I understand how wrong I was. I did well in my fall classes, but I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t put in so much work. One thing I learned last semester was that the hard work doesn’t stop.”

For Emmanuel Servin, arriving on campus as a Summer Bridge scholar challenged his confidence. “I worried I wasn’t as academically prepared as other students. I felt a lot of pressure to prove to myself that I belonged here,” he says. To his surprise, though, just a month into his first semester those fears had already dissipated. “Even with the major differences in my academic and social background, I feel just as capable as my peers now.”

For Bianca Cobian-Campos, another Summer Bridge scholar, the program confirmed what she imagined U-M would feel like. But once the fall semester started, she found some of those early impressions—especially concerning diversity—seemed a lot less accurate outside of the Summer Bridge and Kessler Scholars Programs. “Since U-M is such a big campus, I figured there would be a lot of diversity,” she says. “But once the fall semester began, it was surprising to see very little. I didn’t really see people like me in my classes. There were people from different backgrounds, but within my classes I saw very little diversity and that sometimes made me feel out of place.”

Cobian-Campos wasn’t alone in feeling like an outsider on campus from time to time. After the shine of being a new student at U-M began to wear off, Brewer confesses she sometimes doubted herself. “There were times when I felt like U-M was not the right choice for me, and that I had made a mistake,” she recalls. “Sometimes I wondered if I even deserved to be here.” She missed home and her town, and she felt intimidated by some of her peers. But she found encouragement and companionship in her Kessler Scholars cohort.

“There are only 36 of us, and we have had the incredible opportunity to bond and learn from each other. Here, I’m surrounded by people who come from similar backgrounds, and they are having some of the same struggles,” Brewer says. “Now I feel like I have a community to lean back on, much like the one I had at home.”

Darica Brazier felt differently about the diversity she found on campus. “I didn’t quite expect to see and meet so many different students from so many different cultures and backgrounds,” she recalls.

But thanks to image searches, she did expect to see the buildings, the trees, and the paths of Central Campus that greeted her when she arrived for orientation. “I knew I would love the leaves and autumn scenery in the fall,” she says. “I knew I’d love the old buildings.” She was a little leery about the campus’s obsession with sports—“I wasn’t sure how well I would fit in that environment,” she says—but overall she’s pleased at how well she’s adjusted.

The Kessler Scholars Program is unique because it uses its own data to make evidence-based changes to better supports its students. One example is the Kessler Scholars Peer Mentor Program, which pairs first-year students with upper-level students who share some of the same interests and activities. Brazier gives her peer mentor a lot of credit. “We not only have similar interests, but she can give me advice on what classes to take and what programs to look into,” she says. ”After each meeting, I always leave feeling better about my place here.”

Cobian-Campos found many reasons to feel welcome and excited about being on campus, too. “There are so many people here that just want to help you in any way that they can,” she says. “I knew coming here would give me greater opportunities, and, already, they seem endless.”

In December, at the end of the semester, Brewer’s high school English teacher asked her if she was enjoying U-M and if she felt she had made the right choice.

“It felt great to be truly honest, that this is where I should be and that I am so happy here,” she says. “U-M is just the first step on my journey, and I am so glad that I have the Kessler Presidential Scholars behind me, cheering me along the way.”


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Images by Michigan Photography