Ask LSA sophomore Rafael Lopez about his hometown of Eau Claire, Michigan, and one of the first things he’ll say is that it’s small. “My graduating class,” he says by way of example, “had 32 students.” Joining a class of nearly 7,000 first-year students at U-M was, therefore, quite a change. “I wasn’t necessarily scared,” he recalls, “but I felt confused about what I should be doing.”

LSA sophomore Donnell Williams also recalls how he felt arriving on campus as a first-year student: “I was nervous that I would never find a place where I belong.”

Returning to campus this fall feels different to both of them for many reasons, and one of the biggest is their experience in the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program. “The Kessler Program has given me a community to be part of,” Williams says.

The Kessler Presidential Scholars Program provides four years of significant financial support for academically talented students who are among the first in their families to attend college, demonstrate leadership aptitude, and have a passion for community service. In addition to financial support, it also offers innovative, research-based assistance that fills the gaps left by traditional scholarship programs.

The scholarship was established ten years ago by Fred Wilpon (A.B. 1958) and Judy Kessler Wilpon (A.B. 1958). When Fred Wilpon, a real estate developer and owner of the New York Mets, arrived at U-M in 1954 he was the first person in his family to attend college. Despite the challenges, Wilpon thrived at Michigan. He wanted to create a program that offered the kinds of support that would make today’s first-generation students’ experiences even better. The program has helped 132 students graduate from U-M, and is currently supporting  161 others – 36 of whom are just beginning their first year.

In 2017, the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program launched a two-year pilot that added academic and social supports to its existing financial assistance. These new programs and interventions were grounded in research about first-generation student experiences.  

“The expanded support of the two-year pilot program draws from what research in higher education tells us can improve outcomes and experiences for low-income and first-generation students at institutions like U-M,” says Gail Gibson, director of the Kessler Scholars Program. “We are also learning from students every day as the program grows and develops. And we want to use what we learn from them to make the program better.”

Encouraging Growth

The Kessler community is a diverse group of people with a multitude of interests, aspirations, passions, and careers,” says LSA senior Salma Ali, who has been a strong advocate for the pilot program’s expansions. “By developing more avenues for community building and mentorship, we have more to learn from and give to one another, too.”

And the program is doing exactly that. The new avenues it’s taken include a first-year seminar that explores everything from broad topics like study skills to the nitty-gritty details about how to find and use resources on campus if they need them. The program hosts alumni dinners that give students a chance to hear about the possibilities waiting for them after U-M and how they might manage some of its challenges, too. The program also holds workshops on topics ranging from professional development to trying new things, such as rolling sushi.


“We know from research that frequent contact with students can help prevent them from drifting or dropping out because they don’t know where to turn to figure out an academic, financial, or other kind of issue,” Gibson explains. “The Kessler staff hold weekly open office hours where students can drop in to ask a question or talk through a problem. We also reach out to students who have academic concerns and monitor their progress.  And in all of that, we are working to build the students’ capacity to navigate the university and, eventually, their life outside of it.”

Follow the Data

The program’s new structure and approach is based on current, cutting-edge research. It tracks its interventions as they’re underway and makes evidenced-based innovations to improve them. It also plans to contribute its own findings to the growing body of first-generation student research, including a five-year longitudinal study that is tracking outcomes for students in the pilot program cohorts.

The program actively solicits feedback from its students as well, and then uses it to quickly adapt to the students’ evolving needs. “There were a lot of graduating seniors visiting our office last spring to say they weren’t sure what to do next,” Gibson recalls. “Even if they had a general career plan in mind, they were uncertain how to make that career happen. We realized we needed to do more to help the first-generation students transition into first-generation professionals, often without a model from their own family of what that kind of career path looks like.” In response, this fall the program will launch a series of workshops for juniors and seniors that tackles issues such as networking, mentoring, and navigating job offers.  

The Kessler Scholars Program also works to cultivate support between the students themselves too. By deliberately selecting students who care about giving back to their communities, the program hopes to make its own community one in which students support each other, too. One key support is the peer-mentoring program, which pairs first-year students with sophomores or juniors who have similar academic and social interests.

“When we match students, we are looking for commonalities that can help the students connect, and can also help troubleshoot,” explains Reginald Hammond, Jr., assistant director of the Kessler Scholars Program. “If the new student is facing some kind of challenge, it’s likely the older student also might have experienced the same kind of struggle, and they’ll know the resources that will be most useful to tackle those concerns.”

The peer-mentoring program launched last fall, and for Lopez it has been “life-changing. I feel like I have a sense of leadership that I didn’t have last year. The knowledge I’ve gained from my mentor and from the Kessler staff has given me confidence. I feel that I can help incoming students just as I was helped.”

Above: The 2018-2019 incoming class of Kessler Presidential Scholars
Austin Thomason|Michigan Photography

Lopez was mentored by Tonela Qyli (A.B. 2018), who is beginning medical school this fall. Qyli says the mentorship program gave her a chance “to have a do-over” of her freshman year of college.

“It was rewarding to help Rafael navigate through obstacles that I had also faced when I was starting college,” Qyli says. “And it was a joyful experience to celebrate his accomplishments with him.” Mentors can help with non-academic issues, too.

“My mentor sent me numerous links for off-campus housing, told me about volunteering opportunities, and even helped me work on papers,” Williams says. “I enjoyed having a mentor so much, in fact, that I decided to be a mentor myself for this upcoming year.”

“Students take advice and input differently from other students than they would from program staff,” Hammond says. “Other students are closer to the same experiences, and it can be more inviting, more comfortable, to talk with a fellow student about their concerns.” Qyli agrees, and says she, too, benefited from older students’ experiences when they came back to campus as Kessler alumni to talk about life after U-M, too.

“The Kessler alumni’s anecdotes made me believe that I have control over my career,” Qyli says, “that I am not just stuck in the path that I have chosen right now. With the help of my social networks, I have the power to shape my future and to feel joy in my work.”

As the school year resumes, Kessler students and staff are focused on class schedules and studying, and they’re looking down the road to decisions like declaring majors. LSA sophomore Yasin Farhan is already thinking about it.

“Last year, I had trouble deciding what major to choose and whether I should stay pre-med or do something completely different,” Farhan recalls. “I went to one of the weekly Walk-In Wednesdays that the Kessler program provides where you can show up to their office and talk about whatever you wanted. Reginald, the assistant director of the program, spoke one-on-one with me for about an hour and gave me such helpful advice. I didn't determine my major and my career goals right then and there, but the advice got me motivated and excited for the long journey ahead.”


Images courtesy of the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program
Video by Natalie Condon, Elizabeth DeCamp, and Levi Stroud