Changing the first-gen student narrative: Dean Rosanna Ferro reflects on tenure at the College ahead of move to Ithaca

“I remember looking out the window and seeing cows,” Rosanna Reyes Ferro, associate dean of the College and dean of first-generation initiatives, said of her first trip to the Purple Valley. “I hadn’t seen cows in a long time since leaving the Dominican Republic. So I thought ‘Oh, okay, we are going back to my roots.’”

More than four years after encountering those cows, Ferro has planted her own roots in the community of the College and found a sense of home in a small, liberal arts environment after spending her educational and professional career at Rutgers. Yet just as college is marketed as a four-year experience, Ferro now feels like she is the one graduating, leaving the hills of the Berkshires for the gorges of western New York in taking on the role of vice president for student affairs and campus life at Ithaca College.

For Ferro, the journey to the College was guided by a drive to engage in work that was both deeply personal and that allowed her to engage in critical institutional work. After earning a master’s degree in social work and a doctorate in education – writing her dissertation on high-achieving first-generation college students – Ferro committed herself to focusing on people and structures alike.

“By the time I finished my dissertation, it was pretty clear … I was always curious to hear people’s stories,” Ferro said. “It was clear that the issues weren’t around the students but the institutions. The institutions were not built to support the students. I said, ‘Alright, I want to work in an environment where I can change the structure and not ask students to change themselves.’ That’s really what drove me to Williams. They were looking for someone who was going to come to this very unique place and build a program that was going to support some of the most talented students in the country and in the world. That was really exciting.”

By applying for a position that would center on promoting the first-generation experience at the College and performing the work of the dean’s office more broadly, Ferro initially fostered some skepticism about the College and what work she could do in the Purple Valley after spending the entirety of her adult life at a large, public, more urban institution. “I came in with a few preconceived notions,” she said. “I thought this was going to be an uptight, pretentious place. That’s not me. I am all about relationships and knowing people and, if I couldn’t do that, this isn’t a good place for me. It was a very unfamiliar territory and environment. I wasn’t sure what the need was.”

Particularly, Ferro had trouble initially pinpointing why the College was, at that time, interested in bringing on someone to focus especially on first-generation students. “They seem to be graduating at a very high rate. What is the problem?,” she asked herself. “It wasn’t until I spent some time here that [I realized] it’s not necessarily that there was a ‘problem,’ but that there was a need for students to realize what they were already bringing with them. It took talking with a lot of [people] to understand what the need was because, from an outside perspective … what else do you need? What’s the problem? They’re not dropping out! There was another conversation that needed to happen with students not [being satisfied] with their experience on campus, which is just as important. I didn’t think they were going to hire me.  I thought I was going to be too much of an issue.”

While at the College, Ferro effectively built the first-generation program from the ground up. Along with conceiving and executing a first-generation pre-orientation program that precedes First Days and includes one full day of family programming, Ferro created expanded opportunities for first-generation students available throughout their college careers and lives after the College. Throughout the year, first-generation students can engage in a variety of different programming – professor dinners, local trips and social gatherings – supervised by Ferro and managed by the First-Gen Advisory Board, a team of students who consult Ferro on her work.  “The rationale with the advisory board was … to have a group that was well-informed advising me on what they felt their peers needed but also creating programs in their own way from a student perspective,” Ferro said. “I do the larger-scale programs, but the advisory board does programs that bring the community together. They’re having consistent conversations with a big group of students. … If there are big policy questions or needs, we have invited senior staff to come to meetings. If they have some major concerns that they’re hearing, they let me know. That’s the group that is going to continue this work. I wanted to make sure there was no gap, no stop in that work and the institution is committed to making that happen.”

Brian Benitez ’18, intern for first generation initiatives, emphasized this continuity. “We intend to keep up all of the great work that has made the first gen community as vibrant as it is today,” Benitez said. “We hope to keep a natural rhythm of event following Dean Ferro’s departure. The First Generation Advisory Board (already elected and in place!) will be instrumental in continuing to shape the first gen experience at Williams in Dean Ferro’s absence. With their leadership and feedback, we are confident that the first gen spirit will remain alive and well in the coming weeks.”

Moreover, first-generation students at the College are given the opportunity to connect with first-generation students across different academic institutions at the First-Generation College Student Summit, an experience Ferro believes helps to broaden the perspectives of the Ephs who participate. “Williams has participated in the first-gen summit for the past few years and we were happy to host two years ago,” she said. “It’s a really good opportunity to connect first-gen students here to first-gen students at other places. This past year, we took a group to Tufts … and a lot of the feedback I got from students who went was, ‘Wow, being first-gen is bigger than being first-gen at Williams.’ A lot of students came back saying, ‘We have a lot in place [at the College,]’ which is nice, because I think students sometimes don’t realize how much they have until they look around. They were saying, ‘We’re really grateful for the resources we have,’ and that the experience pushed them to dig a little deeper to build a community that takes advantage of those resources. I hope that we continue to have a group of students attend that summit. It’s been a really nice partnership.”

On top of all these accomplishments, Ferro, in collaboration with Associate Director of Alumni Relations Sharifa Wright ’03, recently launched an alumni network for first-generation students who have graduated from the College. In evaluating the potential of the program, Ferro emphasizes the importance of the mentoring opportunities it offers. “My vision was to have a program that was four years and beyond,” she said. “Being first-gen doesn’t go away once you graduate. It’s an identity that lives with you and I hope it’s a positive identity that lives with you. Now, first-gen alums can start mentoring first-gen students and mentoring each other. It’s a lifetime experience. The programming has that in mind.”

Nevertheless, the role of a dean requires grappling with daily issues on campus alongside long-term projects. Throughout her work to modify structures at the College, Ferro asserted her commitment to always being available to students who sought her out: “If you have all of these programs in place but students don’t feel safe and don’t feel that sense of commitment from the institution, it doesn’t matter. You can sit behind a desk and say, ‘I’m here for you,’ but you’re sitting behind a desk. You’re not accessible. You’re not there. You’re not vulnerable. You’re not allowing students to see who you are. I think, for me, it’s been critical in those difficult times to be outside of my office, to be in those spaces, to have students cry on my shoulder, to say, ‘Yeah, this really isn’t right and shouldn’t be happening to you.’ I think sometimes students don’t understand that being an administrator, we are in this interesting place where we work for an institution, but we are people and that these things do impact [us]. You can be both supportive of the institution you work at and be critical. You can say, ‘I love this place, but we need to do better.’ I think you can do that. We have some issues we need to work through. There’s nothing wrong with saying that.”

After seeing a first-generation program grow from the ground up, the share of first-generation students growing to about one-fifth of the student population and more than 2000 students become alums, Ferro is enthusiastic to once again start something from scratch. Given that the division of student affairs and campus life is an entirely new creation at Ithaca, Ferro will have ample opportunity to leave her mark within the Bomber community.

“The exciting part is it’s a newly-created division. I am going to be able to come in and work with the existing team to really get folks excited and create our own brand,” Ferro said. “I am really excited about spending time with students and understanding what the Ithaca experience is, what it should be and where the gap is. That is going to inform a lot of the work I am going to be doing. I hope to take with me the sense of community and the shared responsibility of making Ithaca a better place, which I learned at Williams. Its students, faculty, staff and alums. Everyone is invested in their own way. People do [this work] differently, but it’s on all of us to make the place better. I’m also going to looking at those students who don’t really have any connection. … You have this group of students who feel like they don’t really have anything … [and] I’m going to spend a lot of time with those students, figuring out why [they] don’t feel like this place is for them, which is what I did here with our first-gen students. We want to focus on what the institution isn’t doing to make you feel like you belong here. … Let’s not put it on them to figure out … we need to be doing [it] right. That’s a philosophy I’m bringing to Ithaca: Take a hard look at the institution and own what’s not working but also celebrate what’s working well. You can be both critical and proud of the institution at the same time.”