President LeBlanc Speaks to First-Generation Students

At the Alliance for the Low-Income & First-Generation Narrative conference, Dr. LeBlanc discussed the value of taking chances and taking advantage of opportunities.

GW President Thomas J. LeBlanc shared his story of being a first-generation college student during the AL1GN Conference. (Photos: Sydney Gray/GW Today)
March 26, 2018

By Briahnna Brown

George Washington University President Thomas J. LeBlanc relayed the importance of utilizing opportunities during a keynote address Saturday at a conference aimed at empowering low-income and first-generation college students.

Founded in 2015, the Alliance for the Low-Income & First-Generation Narrative (AL1GN) is a student movement that seeks to empower and connect low-income and first-generation students across the country.

More than 175 students from 33 schools, including GW, and one high school registered for the second-annual AL1GN conference, which began on Friday. The conference was hosted by First-Generation To College (FG2C), GW’s first-generation student organization. For this year’s conference, which GW hosted for the first time, the theme was highlighting the importance of each student’s individual narrative.

Dr. LeBlanc shared his personal story of being a first-generation college student who took advantage of challenging opportunities that helped him to get where he is today. He explained that his brain and some luck were also helpful on that journey.

"But I would hedge against the luck by working hard and getting an education, because when you have an education almost anything is possible,” Dr. LeBlanc said.

“You can be almost anything you want to be, and it doesn’t matter where you grew up, it doesn't matter what subject you studied,” Dr. LeBlanc continued. “If you have an education, and you’re committed, and you do something that you really love, you can really have an impact.”

He also told the students that they should never doubt that they belong in college and encouraged them to make their schools their own communities.

"At this moment in time, you’re the first generation of a legacy in higher education,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “If you believe like I do that that's the ticket for a bright future, then I want you to carry that candle very high and be the successful people that each of your universities knows you can be." 

Other keynote speakers included education policy expert Gilbert Cisneros, community health center Mary’s Center CEO Maria Gomez and co-founder of the Sierra-Leonean Empowerment Network Desmond Ellis. The three-day conference also featured breakout sessions that covered topics like salary negotiation, graduate school, financial literacy and STEM career guidance.


Professor Steven Livingston (l), Assistant Dean of Students Colette Coleman and Professor Louis Caldera during "The Power of Your Narrative" panel.

On Saturday, conference panels included one titled “The Power of Your Narrative,” which focused on the importance of embracing each student’s individual narrative to be an effective leader in any career field.

It featured Louis Caldera, a GW professor of leadership and a senior fellow with the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute; Colette Coleman, assistant dean of students for the Mount Vernon Campus; Steven Livingston, GW professor of media and public affairs and international affairs; Oliver Street, executive director for enrollment and retention at GW; and Gloria Montiel, who became the first Santa Ana, Calif., high school student to attend Harvard College and the first undocumented student to earn a doctorate from Claremont University.

Panelists shared some of their own struggles with being first-generation college students and how overcoming those barriers carved out a path to success for them and future generations. They also encouraged students to take initiative in finding a mentor because there are many adults willing to help them succeed. They urged students to take advantage of networking opportunities or even stopping by a professor’s office hours to chat.

Ms. Coleman explained that she was able to find the right path to a career in higher education because she had several people along the way tell her what steps she needed to take to get there. She said that being open to accepting that necessary guidance and being brave enough to remain true to her narrative were important steps in learning what she needed to do.

“For me, it was very eye opening to be in a place where you don't know what you're doing, you don't know what the steps are," Ms. Coleman said. “There are people that will open doors for you, and will lay out a path for you, and will help you to see just where you need to go.” 

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