A Commencement Weekend Tradition: Celebrating First-Generation Seniors

Published by Rebecca Goldfine
At a special brunch the day before Commencement, Bowdoin College honored the seniors who are the first generation in their families to graduate from college.
Bridget Mullen addresses the room
Bridget Mullen, director of Upward Bound at Bowdoin, addresses the room. Mullen and Director of Multicultural Student Life Eduardo Pazos organized the first-gen event for the Class of 2022.

With their relatives in tow, the students gathered in Daggett Lounge to share a meal and hear remarks from several of Bowdoin's leaders—two of whom are first-generation college graduates, themselves. 

Dean for Student Affairs and first-gen college graduate Janet Lohmann noted that when Bowdoin held its First-Generation Brunch a few years ago, there were just twenty students in the graduating class who attended. This year, the College invited seventy-five. "That is a joy to see and to be a part of," she said.

President Clayton Rose commended the seniors for "crossing the finish line" through a historically difficult time. "You've been just simply remarkable in how you persevered through all of this," he said.

He acknowledged that "being a first-gen student has unique and significant challenges on top of being a college student in COVID times, or being a college student generally."

And he added that Bowdoin is grateful for all that these particular seniors have contributed to the school. "I want to thank you for making us better, and for the work you've done to help those coming after you."

He encouraged the students to stay connected to Bowdoin when they become alumni, "in whatever ways satisfy you...and to help push the College in the ways you want it to get better."

The three speakers at the event all paid tribute to the role of family in each student's success. "Your families have been your rock," said Dean Janet Lohmann. President Rose said, "We're grateful for the support you've given your students and the College." Dean Jen Scanlon extended her "warmest congratulations to the family and friends who have provided critical support and inspiration along the way." 
Kayla Stuhlmann ’22, with her mom and sister
Kayla Stuhlmann ’22, right, with her mom, Juliet Witty, and sister. "I'm very proud she came to this tough school and prevailed," Witty said about her daughter. When Kayla would occasionally call her in tears, Witty always reminded her: You can do this." And, "It will get better."

Dean for Academic Affairs Jen Scanlon—also a first-generation college graduate—told the gathered students: "You are simply fantastic. You were fantastic already four years ago, but it is my sincere hope that you are simultaneously changed by and more of yourself from your experiences at Bowdoin."

She shared some of the common experiences of first-gen students when they attend college. "One, embarrassment about what you don't know and others do. Two, frustration over not knowing about these things. And three, uncertainty about what might shift in your relationships with other people, those family and friends, when sometimes you gain more education than they have," she said.

Ryan Britt with his mom
Ryan Britt ’22 with his mom, Kelly. Britt received the President's Award this year, and gave a speech at Commencement. "We're super proud. He's amazing, he's always been amazing," Kelly said.

Scanlon then recalled personal experiences highlighting these emotions in her life. "My family has been enormously proud of me but didn't always understand my desire to become an academic," she said. "When I published my first book and dedicated it to my parents, my father joked that he was especially happy for the dedication because that was as far into the book as he could penetrate." But it nonetheless sat in an honored place in her parents' house.

"When you love your support system, whoever it is, and never let go of first-gen gratitude, you always continue to find ways home," she concluded. "Thank you first-gen students for giving all of us at Bowdoin the opportunity to have you among us for four years. What a gift."

Lohmann also followed an unusual trajectory for her family. Neither of her parents graduated from high school. Among their five children, she was the only one to attend college.

"The opportunities afforded to me in college transformed me. The experience I had in college was so powerful and so pervasive, I stayed in higher education," she said.

She urged the graduating seniors to keep asking themselves critical questions: what are they called to do, how do they find their place, who they are, and what they should be.

"As you leave Bowdoin, remember to keep asking, how should I tell the story of my life? Please make sure to include this critical piece: you are a first-gen college student," she said. "Your accomplishments are inspiring and reflect your persistence, commitment, and deep drive to do great things."

Photos by Michele Stapleton