LSA has long been a leader in liberal arts education—not just delivering outstanding academics to a large, diverse student population, but repeatedly inventing new approaches that support students and make their education more effective and accessible. For instance, the Comprehensive Studies Program was the first of its kind, one that built a community of support for students coming from under-resourced high schools, and promoting diversity and inclusion. In the 40 years since its creation, it has become a national model. UROP, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, provides hands-on research opportunities for students to work side-by-side with faculty.
LSA is leading in the undergraduate space again, in line with our values of innovating for the common good and dismantling barriers to inclusion: We have developed groundbreaking support for first-generation students through the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program. The program is built on research about how students succeed, as measured by positive outcomes such as higher graduation rates and a greater sense of belonging. In recent years, LSA and U-M have led the program’s national expansion to other campuses with the launch of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative.
Why does support for first-generation students matter? Students who are among the first in their families to attend college are courageously pursuing new opportunities for themselves and their families. They also face many challenges that their continuing-generation peers don’t. They’re less likely to feel a sense of belonging at college, and, worse, they have lower graduation rates—just 30 percent nationally, and 75 percent at Michigan.
The Kessler program was launched to close this gap. It was made possible by a generous gift from the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation in 2007. Fred Wilpon was a first-generation student who went on to become chair and owner of the New York Mets baseball team and a longtime real estate developer in New York City. As a student he met his wife, Judy Kessler Wilpon, a future LSA alum. The program is named in honor of her parents.
In the fall, we announced a $40 million gift from the Wilpon Family Foundation that will endow the Kessler Scholars program at U-M in perpetuity. The Wilpons understand that first-generation student success goes beyond financial resources, and with this generous gift, we can ensure that these students continue to receive community-driven support and mentoring to succeed at U-M and beyond.
Thanks to years of research, we know that providing first-generation students with a community, a strong peer and alumni network, and academic support makes it more likely that they will thrive at U-M and in their lives and careers after Michigan. For Kessler Scholars, the support follows them throughout their undergraduate experience. And in 2021, the Kessler Scholars graduating cohort closed the gap, attaining a four-year graduation rate of 83 percent—virtually the same rate as their continuing-generation peers in LSA (84 percent).
It’s a stunning success. And this type of individualized, wrap-around support for students is an LSA hallmark. Our mission and values are rooted in this kind of approach. We are a big college committed to helping each of the thousands of students in our community thrive. And programs such as the Kessler Scholars, the Opportunity Hub, the LSA Scholarships Office, the LSA Transfer Student Center, the Comprehensive Studies Program, and more offer a sturdy foundation for LSA students to make the most of their liberal arts education while on campus and beyond.
Anne Curzan, Dean
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
Nicole Tseung has advice for anyone going through the college application process: “It hurts to apply to college. At the end, throw yourself a party. It’s a big accomplishment.”
As a first-generation college student, Tseung might have had to navigate much of the process on her own. Fortunately, she participated in a program called Chicago Scholars that mentors academically ambitious students from under-resourced communities to complete college.
She arrived at Michigan in fall 2020. “COVID! Virtual school!” she says with mock enthusiasm. During one virtual class, she felt the weight of imposter syndrome. “I always felt like I didn’t really belong. During that class I was dead inside. I was looking at all of the people who were speaking, and I felt like they all knew things I didn’t know. I kept thinking about it throughout the day.”
She told some of her Kessler Scholars cohort about her “meltdown.” The social support she received from them, she says, was vital to her. “We share our vulnerable moments. We help each other out. It’s really beautiful,” she says.
Her periodic struggles and recoveries have helped her to understand that everyone has some difficulties during college. “People look like they are okay, but everyone struggles. I look at people who are first gen, and it’s such a good reminder that I’m not alone.
“We are people who are going up the mountain, and 100 percent we’ve fallen before. But with Kessler Scholars, we are all going to make it up.”
When he was five years old, Khyle Cross received a U-M sweatshirt for Christmas. It was gray and had maize lettering. “I wore it everywhere I went. I mean everywhere,” he says.
Back then, being a Michigan fan meant watching football games with his dad and grandpa, and hopping out of his chair to celebrate big plays. As time went on, he began to think of U-M as something more than a football team; he knew, even in his Michigan State-obsessed town, that it was where he wanted to go to college.
How would he make it happen? He wasn’t sure. Cross had good grades in his Lake Odessa, Michigan, high school, but his immediate family did not have experience with applying for college or financial aid. When he learned about the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program, he thought it might be the opportunity to make his dream a reality.
He was right. Now, Cross is a junior political science major in LSA, and he serves on the Kessler Scholars Student Advisory Board. Because of the support he has received from the Kessler Scholars Program and advisory board, Cross says he feels he belongs here, and that gives him the confidence to pursue his Michigan dreams.
In October, the advisory board members attended an Adventure Leadership Training session in the woods near North Campus. “We did a team-building exercise on a narrow plank, sort of like a balance beam. We had to walk one team member across the planks, with one person on each side holding their hand to make sure they didn’t fall.
“While we were doing that, another group was coming the other way. The people on the planks had to figure out how to get around each other without pushing the other person off. This was a visual representation of how support works. We stood by each other’s sides to make sure we didn’t fall.”
At the end of the session, they sat around the campfire, reflecting on the day, eating s’mores, and getting to know each other better. “It’s moments like that throughout my collegiate career within Kessler Scholars that truly make me feel at home at Michigan,” Cross says.
Word to the wise: Do not underestimate Reem Aburukba. Now a first-year law student at Michigan, this former Kessler Scholar had to overcome a lot to get where she is today. Her family in Dearborn, Michigan, could not help her with the college application or financial aid processes. She considered U-M’s Go Blue Guarantee, but she worried that financial issues might get in the way.
“I was going in blind. I thought there was no way I was getting into Michigan. I applied earlier than the deadline, and I kept doubting myself,” she says. When her friends were opening their college acceptance letters, she kept hers sealed until she was home because she knew how embarrassed she would be if she didn’t get in.
Not only did she get in, but she qualified for the Kessler Scholars program. “It was a huge burden off my shoulders,” she says.
In her first semester, she ended up in a 300-level economics class that led to her first-ever failing grade on a test. An adviser told her to drop the class, but Aburukba—who had just read a chapter in the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, as part of the first-year college success seminar that all incoming Kessler Scholars participate in together—decided to stay in the class. She went to the professor’s office hours, sought advice from Kessler Scholars Program Director Gail Gibson and others, and ended up with a B-minus in the class. “It was the only semester of college I didn’t four-point. But I’m glad I stuck with it, that I had grit.”
Aburukba graduated in just three years. She could not have done it without the support of her Kessler Scholars peers, Gibson, and others, she says. “You know when they say that you have college friends, and you see them in the street 30 years from now, it will be like a day hasn’t passed? That’s what it’s like with the Kessler Scholar community.”
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In LSA, we’re preparing students to create bold and purposeful change, wherever their individual paths lead. After graduation, Emmanuel plans to put his multicultural perspective and international studies degree to work in refugee and immigration advocacy. An LSA internship scholarship enabled him to gain precious experience with a nonprofit organization for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers — so he can start making a positive difference now.