First-generation Alumna Strengthens ‘Penn First,’ Seeks Volunteer Mentors

Looking back at her undergraduate days, University of Pennsylvania alumna Leanne Pyott Huebner, who represents the first generation in her family to attend college, remembers feeling “differently prepared” than her peers.

Today, Huebner, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., serves as a member of the Trustees Council of Penn Women and Penn’s Southern California Regional Advisory Board. She’s also harnessing the feeling of “being different” to serve as one of the driving forces behind Penn First, a student-led group on campus that assists first-generation college students with the same challenges that Huebner faced decades ago, such as trying to “fit in.”

“Finding common ground when you’ve never skied, golfed or traveled much wasn’t easy,” says Huebner, who grew up on a farm in Deerfield Township, N.J. “Yet, traits instilled by my parents -- a strong work ethic, budgeting skills and a sense of humor -- guided me through.”

Another challenge Huebner remembers facing was time management. Her work-study job in Dining Services had strict requirements in terms of her work hours; so she switched to a more flexible research job with Wharton professor Robert Inman, who served as an informal mentor to her.

“While I struggled at first, something worked, as I was able to matriculate to Harvard for graduate study,” says Huebner, who is also active in the Harvard First Generation Alumni organization.

Like Huebner, Penn President Amy Gutmann is a first-generation college graduate. She touts “inclusion” as a main component the Penn Compact 2020, which supports low-income and first-generation students by increasing access to educational opportunities at Penn.

Both Huebner and Gutmann know firsthand the impact of higher education on first-generation students and the hard work it takes.

Penn First recently launched a pilot program that pairs first-generation students with alumni mentors. Huebner is working with the team in Alumni Relations to build the Penn First Alumni Network and to identify potential mentors.

“We have really amazing alumni who have shared similar experiences, but now these alumni are at the tops of their fields and are in a unique position to support these students, allowing them to thrive at Penn,” says Elise Betz, executive director of alumni relations. “That’s where Penn alumni can be incredibly helpful.”

Looking ahead, Huebner wants to galvanize participation among other alumni in future programming for Penn First students.

“Next year, we will need many additional mentors to expand the mentoring program we are currently piloting,” Huebner says. “We would love more alumni to get involved, first generation or not. There’s much to do.”

While she enjoys giving back to Penn in various ways, Huebner says working with Penn First is particularly meaningful to her. It brings her volunteer work at Minds Matter, a now-nationwide educational mentoring nonprofit she co-founded in 1991, together with her love of Penn. 

“There seems to be more pressure, in general, in our society today to achieve at an extraordinary level, so these students feel that crunch every day,” Huebner says. “Penn First makes the university experience better for these students, through innovative programs like supportive discussions and team mentoring.”

Cheyenne Rogers, a senior communication major in the School of Arts & Sciences from Naples, Fla., understands how one can easily feel “lost” as a first-generation college student.

Her first semester at Penn, Rogers' advisor was on sabbatical and she did not know who to reach out to for guidance. Believing that withdrawing from a class was practically a failure, she says she struggled to find available tutors in calculus and economics, but it was already too late.

“The result,” says Rogers, “was two poor grades, a dissatisfying first semester of college and an experience with depression that I am only now able to acknowledge. This is just one example of how being a first-generation college student affects me. But, the truth is, it affects hundreds of other students every single day.”

This year, Rogers was one of the 12 students who established Penn First to advocate for their needs.

“Often, we are silent because we think we are alone,” she says, “but together our community can make our many voices heard and make changes on this campus.”

Huebner hopes that Penn becomes the choice for students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds, because of the University’s steadfast commitment to equality.

“Our goal is to have these students have an equal chance at enjoying college, studying abroad, getting great internships, completing graduate study and, ultimately, achieving life success because they were uniquely supported while here,” Huebner says. “Penn is already doing so much; extra tweaks can make it even better.”

Supporting first-generation students and addressing their needs are major priorities for the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life and units such as the Greenfield Intercultural Center, where Penn First is based.

The group’s advisors include Will Gipson, Penn’s associate vice provost for equity and access; Jacqueline Amparo, associate director for equity and access at GIC; and Valerie De Cruz, GIC’s director, who has worked with first-generation students for more than 25 years.

GIC staff members provide organizational support, referrals, guidance on program design and funding for events. In addition, it’s already pairing individual first-generation students with GIC alums based on career interests.

“Penn First is eager to ensure strong advising for FirstGen students from the time they are accepted and throughout their Penn experience,” De Cruz says, adding that Penn’s faculty and staff are playing a vital role in constructing the mentoring network.

Rogers says the group is working to increase its outreach to first-generation and low-income students by focusing on a pre-orientation component and New Student Orientation events.

She says the goal is to have a space on campus, similar to the many cultural centers here at Penn: “a place where all first-generation and low-income students can find a ‘home away from home’ and have a physical space that will allow them to network, de-stress, build friendships and find connections to the larger Penn community.”

For Rogers, the biggest thing that Penn First has done for her has been to provide an understanding community. For the first time in her life, she says, she knows that she is not alone in the struggles that she experiences.

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