Muhlenberg is the fourth ever chapter of Alpha Alpha Alpha honor society for first-generation college students, and will induct new members in April of this year.
Alpha Alpha Alpha was founded last fall at neighboring Moravian College by Carol Traupman-Carr, Associate Provost of Moravian College and a first generation student herself.
“First-gens get a lot of attention in higher education news and workshops; often, the conversation focuses on what they need, coming from families that don’t understand the college journey, especially where first-generation students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Of course, not all first-gens are the same, and not all need the same supports,” said Traupman-Carr in an interview by My Moravian.
“I discovered that for all the attention that first-gens get, there is no honor society for them. So I asked the president if we could start one and got his complete support,” said Traupman-Carr.
Traupman-Carr then opened up applications to the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges (LVAIC) members to be next chapters, explained Provost Kathleen Harring.
“Not only does Muhlenberg now have a chapter,” said Harring, “100 years from now we are going to be viewed as one of the first.”
Muhlenberg is the Delta chapter of Alpha Alpha Alpha, meaning the fourth ever chapter, right after Salem and Lafayette college. Moravian holds the title of the Alpha chapter.
“It aligns very well with our commitment to supporting all of our students – in particular a diverse student body- and with the work professor Lonsinger and Dean Anderson have been doing in order to provide targeted support for first generation students,” said Harring.
Dawn Lonsinger, Assistant Professor of English, and Bruce Anderson, Dean of Academic Life, are advisers to the Honor Society as well as co-directors of the First Generation Advocacy and Support group, which is also new to campus. The support group took shape last fall at an event where about 50 mentors attended.
To Lonsinger, the support group is more necessary to students than the honor society.
“Because social class is still something we are uncomfortable talking about in American culture, because we are all sold on the notion that we should want to escape and transcend our class (and that such a transformation is complete), because most college students from poor or working class families have a different set of skills and concerns than their peers, because they are an invisible group who are inadvertently but omnipresently taught to feel shame about their upbringing, because they do not have easy access to material privileges and the cultural cache that comes with money and status, because they should know they are not alone, the development of a first-generation community at Muhlenberg is very important,” said Lonsinger.
Lonsinger, who has a BA, MA, MFA, and a PhD, is an award-winning poet, a published author of Whelm and is also a first generation student. Her mother was a factory worker and her father a janitor.
“When I arrived at Bucknell University, there were support networks in place for women, LGBTQ students and students of color, but there was no evidence of any support for students from working class or poor backgrounds for whom college was largely, before stepping foot on one, a foreign concept, as alien as Paris, Burberry, or beef bourguignon. That always seemed odd to me, but more importantly, it made college harder for me, because I continued to carry the shame of growing up poor amid my largely upper-middle class peers,” said Lonsinger.
“Like most first generation students, I was straddling two worlds, the world of intellectuals and the middle class and the world I returned to at home, and the longer I was in college the more strongly I felt a sense of exile in both places. Now I know that there must have been other people on campus who were also first-generation, but I had no way of knowing and thus no easy accessible community that could understand all I was grappling with. This is all a long-winded way of saying that I believe such a group is vital to the health, well-being and success of first generation college students.”
Lonsinger is planning workshops for professors on teaching first gen students, focusing on changing the depiction of poverty as “the other.” She also plans to hold a panel to help first generation students at Muhlenberg straddle their two worlds.
These students have strengths that come with their backgrounds, like a dedicated work ethic and life skills- everything from laundry to meal preparation, said Lonsinger. She hopes in meeting other first gen students, they will learn to recognize and utilize those skills, and remember that they are not alone in their two worlds.