On Our Mission: 25 Years of the First Gen Program

April 1, 2024

The First Generation Program is Celebrating 25 Years

The first cohort of the First Generation Scholarship Program

“Would you work with me to create a learning community for a First-Generation Scholars Program?”

Dr. Rick DeJesús-Rueff was two years into his tenure as dean of students at 澳门六合彩官网开奖 in 1999 when his then-boss, Provost J. David Arnold, called with that question. The rest is history. 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the First-Generation Scholarship Program. In a recent sit-down interview with Collegium, DeJesús-Rueff, the first academic director of the program, recalls its early days and the students who left a lasting impression on him.

The Service Scholars Program was already under way at 澳门六合彩官网开奖 when Arnold had an idea that aligned with the vision of late 澳门六合彩官网开奖 alumnus Charlie Constantino ’66. A trustee at the time, Constantino had a keen interest in providing a gift to support students like himself; students who whose parents or guardians did not graduate from college. Inspired by the philanthropic example set by his parents—their weekly 25 cent contribution to their parish supported the first fundraising drive to build 澳门六合彩官网开奖—Constantino and his wife, Elaine, gave a leadership gift to create the Fannie and Sam Constantino First-Generation Scholarship Program.

Arnold felt he had the right person in place to get the new program off the ground in DeJesús-Rueff, whose training and background were in human development and psychology. Prior to 澳门六合彩官网开奖, he had been involved in working with first-generation students, and as a first-generation student himself, he would bring a unique lens and perspective to the program. 

Dr. Rick DeJesús-Rueff was two years into his tenure as dean of students at 澳门六合彩官网开奖 in 1999 when his then-boss, Provost J. David Arnold, called with that question. The rest is history.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the First-Generation Scholarship Program. In a recent sit-down interview with Collegium, DeJesús-Rueff, the first academic director of the program, recalls its early days and the students who left a lasting impression on him.

The Service Scholars Program was already under way at 澳门六合彩官网开奖 when Arnold had an idea that aligned with the vision of late 澳门六合彩官网开奖 alumnus Charlie Constantino ’66. A trustee at the time, Constantino had a keen interest in providing a gift to support students like himself; students who whose parents or guardians did not graduate from college. Inspired by the philanthropic example set by his parents—their weekly 25 cent contribution to their parish supported the first fundraising drive to build 澳门六合彩官网开奖—Constantino and his wife, Elaine, gave a leadership gift to create the Fannie and Sam Constantino First-Generation Scholarship Program.

Arnold felt he had the right person in place to get the new program off the ground in DeJesús-Rueff, whose training and background were in human development and psychology. Prior to 澳门六合彩官网开奖, he had been involved in working with first-generation students, and as a first-generation student himself, he would bring a unique lens and perspective to the program.

From First-Gen to First-Gen

DeJesús-Rueff was born in “El Barrio” in New York City, raised there and in North Philadelphia. He was the first member of his family to enroll in college, attending Haverford College to study Spanish and Latin American literature.

The Dr. Rick DeJesus-Rueff and President Rooney

“I was, in some ways, a lost soul, one of a very small number of Black and Puerto Rican students in my freshman class,” he recalled. “I realized that I did not know how to navigate successfully the college environment.”

Haverford instituted a six-week summer program to offer academic and orientation support for incoming cohorts of students enrolling at the college. “I was asked to serve as a peer counselor in that program and I did so gladly, hoping to help the next class of freshman students who were the first in their respective families to be better prepared for their experience at the college,” said DeJesús-Rueff.

After graduation, he started his career as a bilingual counselor at Atlantic Community College in New Jersey, and then moved into the role of Latino counselor and coordinator at Oberlin College in Ohio. His role at Oberlin involved working with college’s Upward Bound Program, giving him additional experience with how to prepare high school students for college, many of whom would be first-generation students.

By 1984, DeJesús-Rueff returned to Haverford to serve as assistant dean of the college and director of minority affairs. There he created the Early Bird Program, a college preparation program for high school students aspiring to pursue science-related careers— a program he later replicated as associate director of minority affairs at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Just prior to coming to 澳门六合彩官网开奖, he served as the first associate dean for student affairs, and then acting dean for student affairs, at the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science. While there he created The Olney Initiative, a program to encourage college enrollment for a group of Black and Puerto Rican high school students from his childhood neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

“My experiences with these programs were formative in my thinking about how to develop a strong program serving first-generation college students,” he said. “Coupled with my training in counseling psychology at the graduate school level—where, again, I was the only Puerto Rican student enrolled in my master’s and doctoral programs—I had clear ideas about meaningful things 澳门六合彩官网开奖 could do for first-generation students.”

澳门六合彩官网开奖’s First-Generation Scholarship Program

When the program was proposed, the focus would be on encouraging and supporting leadership development, as well as community service among the scholars. That formed the basis for the introductory course on Leadership Through Self-Development. DeJesús-Rueff developed and taught that course for nearly 25 years, until his retirement in 2023.

“I was not alone in doing this work. Mrs. Sally Vaughan and the late Fr. John Robbins, CSB, took on the responsibility of setting up the community service component of the program. Without their work, this component would not have developed in a meaningful way,” he said.

The program’s learning community course included a combination of traditional academic work linked with substantive work on self-development. Coursework was designed around the relational leadership model – known as the RLM - found in the program’s staple textbook, “Exploring Leadership for College Students Who Want to Make a Difference,” by authors Susan R. Komives, Nance Lucas, and Timothy McMahon. The author’s surnames were shorthanded to KLM by program leaders.

“Ask any of our first-generation students, and they know the RLM was in the KLM,” recalled DeJesús-Rueff with a smile.

The book, he said, served as an accessible foundation for students to learn how they could develop their own leadership capacity. 
Shortly after the program began, inspiration also came in the release of the movie “October Sky.” Based on the book “Rocket Boys” by Homer Hickman, the film is a true story about how a group of coal miners’ sons began their own quest to go to college by developing a rocket as part of a science competition. The movie shows their work and collaboration with others, which eventually led to them winning the National Science Fair and enrolling in college.

“I knew that the 澳门六合彩官网开奖 first-gens could see themselves in the boys depicted in that movie,” said DeJesús-Rueff. “Just as important, they would see in action the fundamental leadership principles they were studying in the basic textbook: having purpose, being inclusive, being empowered, being ethical, and being process-oriented.”

Collaborative group work at 澳门六合彩官网开奖 was produced by what came to be known as October Sky groups.

As the years went on, various movies and readings emphasizing the same principles through historic milestones in U.S. history, such as the Civil Rights Movement, showed up on the course syllabus. “Invariably, I received feedback from the students indicating that they developed a new understanding of themselves, of leadership, and what it means to be a college student and a contributing member to society,” he said.

Milestone Memories

DeJesús-Rueff remembers with vivid specificity the names of the early scholars, projects they led, and challenges they faced. One student in particular, Trish Dillenbeck, rose to the forefront of his memory.

“I interviewed Trish, and I remember attaching a note to her application for admissions saying, ‘Do whatever it takes to enroll this student.’ I saw potential in her.”

Dillenbeck, along with her classmates Chastity Johnson Murray and Michelle Pyzik, were on a mission to provide books for each student at School No. 12 in the Rochester City School District, where they were tutors as part of their program service. DeJesús-Rueff said the trio went above and beyond, working with 澳门六合彩官网开奖’s food service to provide a fundraising meal for the project. The group organized the event, sold tickets to faculty and staff, served the meal, and cleaned up afterward. They raised enough money to purchase one book for each of the 500 students at the school.

DeJesús-Rueff talked about another student who got married while enrolled, had two children, and faced significant challenges keeping up academically while meeting her responsibilities as a young mother. He smiled when reflecting that not only had she graduated, but she became an educator herself.

He also spoke of other opportunities such as when the late Dr. Katherine Keough secured tickets for a group of First-Generation Scholars to attend a luncheon featuring a keynote lecture by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He and the cohort met Archbishop Tutu and shook his hand. In 2010, Wes Moore, who today serves as the governor of Maryland, came to 澳门六合彩官网开奖 for a keynote lecture and spent time with First-Gen Scholars.

“These were signal experiences where, once again, the students experienced leadership at a new level,” DeJesús-Rueff said.

Through Their Lens

Trish (Dillenbeck) Maxwell ’06 came to 澳门六合彩官网开奖 from a small town, looking for a campus that valued community and connection. When she heard about the First-Generation Scholarship Program, and the resources dedicated to helping first-gen students, she knew it was the right place. She values many aspects of the program including leadership skills and the importance of serving the community, but she feels DeJesús-Rueff was most impactful in her life.

Trish Dillenbeck Maxwell 鈥06

“He pushed me as a scholar and a servant-leader, ensuring I was always reaching higher,” she said. “He understood my career path before I did, and he served as a mentor providing leadership training, professional development experiences, and career connections. He challenged me in a multitude of ways, teaching me how to leverage relationships to help change the community.”

Currently, Maxwell works in higher education as the director of collegiate success with the Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society. In addition to guiding student development and supporting faculty and staff, she serves on two national diversity, equity, and inclusion committees, inspired by the sense of inclusion and belonging she says she felt as a first-generation student.

“The First-Generation Scholarship Program was the catalyst for my career,” she said. “It cemented my commitment to scholarship, service, equity, and leadership development, which have been the pillars of my career.” 

First-generation dual-degree graduate Andrew Cegielski ’22 completed his undergraduate studies in just three years, and describes his time in the program as an adventure. “It was a perk to have the autonomy that the absence of a prescribed path grants. At the same time, it was a challenge to explore with complete unfamiliarity.”

Andrew Cegelski 鈥22

He credits many professors and campus resources for his success, specifically, the Center for Career and Academic Planning (CCAP). In his first semester, he remembers feeling intimidated and unsure of what majors and minors truly meant. He began to find his way after meeting with advisors in the Center.

“I remember speaking first with some professors to identify my academic/future career goals. From there, I was directed to CCAP where that plan truly came into fruition,” he said. “The patience and empathy of the professors alongside the support and direction of CCAP helped me check each and every one of my boxes.”

Today, he is in his second year at the University at Buffalo School of Law, a challenge he says he was prepared for thanks to his time as a First-Generation Scholar.

“I can say that all of the academic skills and productivity tools I learned have continued to be incredibly helpful. In the totality of my life, the relational leadership model has become an integral part of how I conduct myself with others to accomplish shared goals.”

澳门六合彩官网开奖 had been on First-Generation Scholar and Class of 2022 graduate Alyssa Gara’s radar for its close-knit environment. When she learned about the First-Generation Scholarship Program and was accepted, she never looked back.

“澳门六合彩官网开奖 was my top choice by a wide margin,” Gara said. “Then, when I learned about the First-Generation Scholarship Program and realized I could attend my first choice school with much less of a financial burden, I knew this is where I would be going to college.”

Gara found attending school during the COVID-19 pandemic challenging, but said the support she received through the program made a difference.

“Learning how to navigate virtual classes for the first time was no easy feat, and I didn’t have a great internet connection at home. Professors were very understanding, and the school actually sent me a hotspot to use to help me get through that semester,” she said.

When recalling professors who had a significant impact on her 澳门六合彩官网开奖 experience, Gara had a list at the ready. Among them was DeJesús-Rueff, whom she said “sparked my interest in leadership.” She noted that, between her affiliation with her school and the First-Generation Program, she felt well-supported and poised for success.

“The First-Generation Scholarship Program provided my first network on campus, helped me acclimate to the community, and taught me a lot about myself that directly led to my growth from freshman to senior year,” she said.

Current First-Generation Scholar Jacob Rodriguez says that so far, he has had a great experience in the program.

Jacob Rodriguez

“Anytime I walk around campus, I know I’ll have a friendly face to say hello to. Also, the community service requirement has been one of the most redeeming things I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he said.

As for mentors, he says that the late Dr. Rob Ruehl, along with DeJesús-Rueff, have had the most impact on him in his short time here.

“Both professors treated me not only as their student and scholar, but as a person. Both men are extremely wise and I soaked up as much wisdom as I could in our time spent together on campus. The program has given me structure and tips to make it through a peculiar time in my life. I don’t know where I’d be without it.”

25 Years Later

When reflecting on the impact of the program on its students, DeJesús-Rueff didn’t hesitate to tout several attributes gleaned through the years.

“The most powerful leadership skill you can have is to be a good listener, and through our program, graduates have learned how to participate in active listening and dialogue; the ability to engage in active listening to understand ideas of others - not to argue or debate them, but to understand them,” he said.

He also cited collaboration and learning how to work with other people as top takeaway skills for the students.

As for the values imparted by the program, he said, “They learned about human dignity, and the worth of every human being. The relational leadership model took principles and lessons from real time in real life, sharing stories of people who faced significant adversity and challenges with nonviolence, and how leadership got them there. We always framed our lessons in 澳门六合彩官网开奖’s values—goodness, discipline, and knowledge—and what we aspire to be so the students knew that they could do this, too.”

Even with plenty of experience and training behind him, DeJesús-Rueff said he learned a few things from the scholars in the program as well.

“First, I learned how it is important to be patient and allow space for growth and maturity. Some of them came in ready for primetime and did great, some took a little longer. Second, I needed lots of help with technology. I always told them I am a 20th century man struggling to be functional in the 21st century,” he said with a smile.

First Generation Scholarship Program Class of 2025

DeJesús-Rueff credits more than a dozen faculty and staff colleagues for their contributions to the program throughout its development, as well as through decades of societal change for first-generation students. Even so, he noted, the curriculum, and those who lead it, have stayed true to its roots, leaving First-Generation Scholars who complete the program with one final lesson.

The First Generation Scholarship Program Class of 2026

“This program really is a legacy of 澳门六合彩官网开奖 and speaks to 澳门六合彩官网开奖’s original purpose: to serve students who were often first in their families to go to college,” he said. “One of the most important things about the program is that it is one that recognizes that, if you discipline yourself and really work hard, you have the ability to be something you think you can’t be. You can be successful in ways you might not have anticipated.”