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Alum Alliance: 1st Gen Alums Helping 1st Gen College Students [Updated 6/2/15]

First-generation college alumni can help counsel 1st gen college students and help them avoid financial pitfalls (updated 6/2/15)

Photo of Leah Williams
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Who does this idea benefit, who are the main players and what's in it for them?

Mid-20 to mid-30s 1st generation college alumni could work with current 1st gen students, counseling them through what is often a difficult transition that is poorly understood by those who haven't gone through it.

How is your idea specifically using the power of communities to improve financial opportunities and resources?

For almost every college, there is a group of dedicated college alumni who donate to the college, interview perspective students, and are willing to talk with students about their careers. Those alumni who experienced the difficulties of being first generation college students would likely be willing to reach out to first generation students now, to help them manage the tribulations, temptations, and expense of college life.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

As a 1st gen alum living near my alma mater (and now in business school there), I will talk to my university about the potential of this idea.

This idea emerged from:

  • An individual

Update #1: User Experience Map and a few comments.

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I'd like to thank everyone for the amazing and helpful feedback, with a very hearty thanks to the terrific Dave Zinsman, an OpenIDEO  superman who has been patiently mentoring me through this project. 

I've done a number of interviews while brainstorming for Alum Alliance, mostly with first-generation students, but also with other stakeholders (including the director of a local not-for-profit that helps first generation students get to & through college). A few key themes emerged from these discussions, which informed the user experience map above:

  • While the focus of this OpenIDEO challenge is on financial empowerment, Alum Alliance will be a broader mission. First generation students I interviewed were interested in financial advice, but also were interested in academic, networking/career, and general life advice from Alum Alliance. 
  • Alumni mentors should mostly work in groups, perhaps with one key advisor assigned to each student. This provides alumni a chance to connect with each other (increasing the benefit they derived from the experience, as well as deepening their connection to the university). Also, having a mentor network will ensure students can talk to someone from a similar social background one time, and who pursued the same major as them another time.

Next steps: I'll be working on prototyping what Alum Alliance might look like, focusing on the first year of a student's experience. Also, a local university has been running a pilot program similar to Alum Alliance; I'll be talking to a few key stakeholders to see what their experience has been. 

Being a first-generation college student is full of promise, but also difficult and difficult to understand. When I was a first-generation college student, I didn't realize how expensive just socializing with my classmates could be, I lacked the family connections and network of acquaintances that seemed to be necessary to find well-paying jobs and internships while I was in college, and I didn't have a safety net to help me when my parents got sick or when my belongings got stolen. 

First-generation/lower-income students at elite colleges have begun to form support groups for each other. In addition to this effort, I believe having a group of Alumni Allies who were also first-generation students could help these students would be powerful, and that these Allies may have insights and experience that school administrators, family members, and other students wouldn't be able to offer. They could hold group meetings with 1st ten student alliances, on topics such as "How to socialize on the cheap" to "How to use your student credit cards wisely"; one-on-one counseling could be another option.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Tom Weischer

Hey Leah,
great idea and thanks for sharing! It's now 5 years ago since I was in first year but I can approve that there is a need for an implementation of your idea. Currently I am studying in Sydney for one semester and I have to admit that I was crushed by the costs of living and socializing in this city. Accordingly you could also think about supporting international exchange students. Maybe former exchange students decided to move to this city so that they could function as alumni as well.
Again, I really like your idea and see the need in such a support.


Photo of Yoni Sarason

Great idea! Affinity groups usually spring up around nationality, religion, or academic focus, but rarely around actual relevant background that moderates the lived experience in the campus environment. Particularly at elite universities, in which generations of wealth and privilege are prevalent, having a group of people with whom to feel normal is critical. I have several former undergraduate classmates who were every bit as driven and smart, but didn't have the support systems to thrive in a foreign environment. You should connect to organizations like Companies that Care, who are focusing beyond merely getting lower-income and first-generation students into college, but instead trying to help them graduate. Also, think about how specifically local alumni and other networks can provide in-person support.

Photo of Adriel Estrada

As a first-generation college student who attended an elite university thousands of miles away from home, this issue is all too real. It’s been almost 20 years since my undergraduate days and things really haven't changed. I think one of the largest issues we face is that people in our situation feel shame to speak out about the socio-economic issues surrounding “surviving” the first years on campus. Secondly, many of us take jobs to make ends meet while in school which makes it difficult to network with our classmates during our supposed “free-time” and find it equally difficult to attend or maximize school/business supported networking events. Lastly, due to a lack of a business-minded network back home, recent graduates find themselves spending most of their time looking for work, leaving less time and availability to give back to the next generation. Per Shane’s comments, perhaps these points can help tell the story needed for people to better grasp the sense of urgency. Aside from individual university administration, partnerships could be made with organizations that traditionally engage with under-represented students through scholarships or internship placement. Thanks for adding this idea.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congratulations on making it to the Financial Empowerment Challenge Refinement phase Leah! We really appreciate how your idea is harnessing the inherent potentials of a very specific network within your local community. We also love how this idea was developed in response to the needs that you saw as a first generation college student.

In the Refinement Phase, it’d be helpful to develop the specific types of activities that Alum Allies will be engaged in. How will members effectively help each navigate around the pitfalls of student loans and personal budgeting? How might Alum Alliance members stay engaged within the support group overtime? Perhaps you might explore if there are any established student groups or staff at your university that may be interested to help out with development of Alum Alliance. We’d also love to hear how you might run a simulation of this idea with a small group of first generation college students from your university. We’re excited to see how you might develop and even launch this peer to peer support network! Don’t forget to check out our Resources page ( and these tips for Refinement (, too.

Photo of Shane Zhao

Great contribution Leah! The notion of forming a peer to peer alliance amongst 1st generation students is great. You might be interested to check out the Meritus Fund where many 1st generation students and alumni form support networks like what you are envisioning.
Is there a particular local university where you can run a quick pilot of this to gain some feedback from students?

Also, perhaps you might consider helping people better grasp how this idea could play out by describing some example scenarios of the proposed activities you've outlined. Check this example: where a few simple scenarios were created in an attempt to explain the goodness on the idea in a human-centered way. (You can update your entry at any time by hitting the Edit Contribution button at the top of your post.)