The year is 2012. Rachel Kim has begun her freshman year at the University of New Hampshire, as a first-generation college student of color. She has no mentor and no family experiences to help her during the transition after high school. Parting through the sea of white students, she holds her head high, already breaking out and becoming a leader.
10 years later, Kim is working at UNH and creating a program called the Inclusive Leadership Fellows to help the students in the same position she had been in. Kim’s ability to communicate and bond over shared experiences has created a powerful connection and mentorship between her and the first-generation students of UNH.
Out of the 11,000 undergraduate students currently enrolled in UNH, only 15% of them are racial minorities and 21% are first generation college students. During their freshman year, there is an opportunity to join a program called CONNECT, which helps transition the minority and first generation students from high school into college. At the end of the year, they’re expected to get through the next three years on their own, until they graduate and begin to create their own path.
Kim, who is the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Programs at UNH’s Paul College of Business, noticed an issue many of her advisees were facing from the CONNECT program in 2020. “Nothing happens. They kind of are let loose and they still are friends, but that connectivity gets lost,” she said. Kim, alongside Luciana Echazu, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, began to design a way to mentor and create community amongst the former CONNECT students.
“We started meeting with the CONNECT students, to get to know who they are, to hear their stories, and to find ways we can support,” Kim said.
They came up with an idea where students act as mentors to each other, while meeting with advisors who can teach them to become leaders after they graduate. Inclusive Leadership Fellows, with the help of a one million dollar donation, has now grown into a cohort program where students receive a scholarship that is awarded annually after their first year.
Without Kim, this program would not have been able to blossom. Her experiences give her an insight into what may be going through some of these students’ minds. “As a first-generation college student who was also a student of color on this campus, to an extent I understand the experience, as well as some of the barriers, that students might have,” Kim said.
This perception of what her students may be going through has created an impact noticeable by the other leaders of the program. Echazu said, “She holds that group of students very dear in her heart, and she understands their needs better than I do, or anyone else does.”
Although being able to connect through shared experiences is vital for an advisor, her characteristics as a person have created a strong leader. “She has this innate ability to connect with anybody, although she tends to be more quiet and reserved,” said Sean Stewart, former Assistant Director of Undergraduate Programs, who worked alongside Rachel during her first years as an advisor. Fazla Karim, a UNH junior has felt this connection, and realized how devoted she is to all of her students. “She’s always been present in every meeting, whether there’s two of us or twenty, she’s always been there as an advocate for us,” Karim said.
Kim has been one of the only support systems for some of her first-generation college students, who have no one to learn from in their own environments. UNH Junior and member of the Inclusive Leadership Fellows Adrian Sutton says, “Whenever I have a question, she emails me within the hour, sometimes sooner, and always has a solution or will direct me to someone who has one. I can tell she’s just excited to help.”
Her colleagues speak highly of her initiative, and what she’s been able to accomplish. “What she’s accomplished in such a short period of time speaks volumes to her character and personality,” Stewart said.
Kim’s strong leadership characteristics have helped students grow their own skills as leaders. “I’ve also developed a lot of professional skills, like networking. I think that because of her, when I graduate I’ll be a lot more comfortable than I would have been if I had never met her,” Sutton said.
The Inclusive Leadership Fellows program is still in its growing stages, but Kim has plans to take even larger steps during the 2023 school year. Kim said, “We are recruiting students in the spring and hope to launch next fall. From the relationships we’ve made now, we were able to see the potential of students who have been leaders in their organizations.”
– Amelia Rury, MOR Guest Writer
Image by Kelly Sareault