First-Generation Students, and Their Families, Marvel Over a College Degree

The day before the hullabaloo of Commencement, before degrees were rejoiced over and lobster eaten, before vehicles were packed to move newly minted graduates on to new lives, a handful of students and family members gathered for an intimate event in Moulton Union’s Lancaster Lounge.

They had come for the annual First-Generation Lunch, when Bowdoin honors the students who are the first in their families to graduate from college.

President Barry Mills welcomed the parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents and friends who joined the lunch as guests of students. “I know how much emotion is tied to this,” he said, to the moment when families watch their son or daughter — with years of hard work and generations of hard lives behind them — receive a college degree.

Mills, class of 1972, shared his story about being a first-generation college student. He said his outer appearance — president of Bowdoin, a life in New York, a career as a Wall Street lawyer — does not reflect where he actually comes from. His mother didn’t go to college; his father didn’t graduate from high school. Instead, Mills’ father dropped out to go into business with his brother in Rhode Island, sewing new seat covers into automobiles.

Bowdoin changed his life, Mills said. And the best part of being a college president today, he added, is “…creating opportunities for young people whose lives I think are really going to change because they have the opportunity to spend some time on this campus.”

Bowdoin is a better place because all of you are here.”
—Associate Dean Leana Amaez

The event was organized by Leana Amaez, associate dean of multicultural student programs. Among other duties, Amaez works with students of color and first-generation students to help them navigate their way through Bowdoin. At the lunch, she spoke about her grandfather, who at age 9 left school to cut and burn sugar cane in Puerto Rico.

“He scraped and saved and dreamed and ultimately blazed a new trail to New York in the hope of escaping poverty,” she said. When he passed away last year, he was surrounded by six children, 15 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, many descendants who taken advantage of the opportunities he had given them. “I was able to see what love and sacrifice look like. They look like a lawyer, a doctor, a school teacher, an assistant superintendent, a magazine editor, an accountant and an engineer.”

Amaez reminded students that Bowdoin “will open many doors.” But, she continued, “the reality is all of you have brought great gifts to Bowdoin as well. Bowdoin is a better place because all of you are here.”

Amaez then welcomed students and family members to share personal words. As one after another stood up to speak, tears flowed, voices trembled, hugs were exchanged. Again and again the phrases, “I’m so proud of you,” and “I love you,” were expressed.

“I’m here to support my sister,” Kiel Kinslow said, of Zina Kinslow ’13. “I’m crying because I’m happy. I’m happy to see her hard work, her grit and her hustle has paid off. She never doubted herself all these years. She had a plan … she always had a plan, and it’s great to see it come to fruition here today.”

Joshua Gutierrez’s mother, Brenda Gutierrez, said she never imagined her son would end up in such a beautiful place. “It’s what I hoped and dreamed for,” she said. “My kids — they have gone above and beyond; they are the trailblazers in my family.”

Juan Del Toro ’13 said he owes a lot to his mentors, particularly to his mother, who moved to the United States from Mexico without any knowledge of English or knowing anyone. Del Toro is the youngest of her five children, all of whom have earned college degrees. “A lot of what I’ve accomplished is a dedication to my mother,” he said. “I want to celebrate my mother, my father and all the other parents here who have influenced their kids to go to college.”

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