First-gen graduate returns to Whitman to tell her story
Although Harmony (Paulsen) Burright ’06 lives on a sailboat, she learned what it truly means to feel adrift during her first year at Whitman College.
As a first-generation college student, she felt out of place among her peers – students from non-working-class backgrounds seemed so sure of themselves, like they already knew how to do college. Even the other first-year students.
“There was definitely culture shock,” she said. “You don’t even know what’s going to be a challenge to you until you’re challenged by it.”
Burright, who went on to co-found what is now Whitman’s First Generation/Working Class (FGWC) club, returned to campus in September to share her experiences and advice with current students and campus leadership.
One highlight of the visit was an event called “College is Pure Opportunity,” at which students were invited to dinner and discussion with Burright and first generation student Ashley Hansack ‘15.
The event was the first in a series of three programs, organized by the Intercultural Center and the Student Engagement Center, designed to help first generation, first-year, and lower-income students become more familiar with the resources available to them at Whitman, and one of many new programs and services that will be implemented to support and uplift FGWC students in the coming year.
“We have a pretty diversified network of opportunities available,” said Kyle Martz, Program Advisor at the Intercultural Center, “but [some students] don’t have anyone at home telling them about all the things you can do at a college like this.”
Burright had an involved mom looking out for her back home, but in those first months at Whitman, she wasn’t aware of any focused efforts to encourage and support first generation or low-income students. Certain activities and majors seemed prohibitively expensive – the cost of art supplies, or applications to study abroad, for example — and she sometimes sensed an uneasiness in discussions of class or race issues.
Dodging what sometimes felt like well-meaning but misguided assumptions and overgeneralizations about poverty, Burright found her sea legs by reaching out to others with backgrounds like her own.
Before long, she was working with History Professor Julie Charlip and fellow student Jena Griswold to give institutional shape to a new campus group: the Whitman College Working Class. The group eventually became Whitman’s thriving FGWC, a place for any student who identifies as working class, or who is the first in a family to attend college.
The original group was open to faculty, staff, and students, and Burright remembers that there were about 30 people anxious to join from the start. She was relieved to find others who were in the same boat.
“During the first meeting, we didn’t even get past introductions,” Burright remembered. “There was so much on peoples’ minds and in their hearts.”
The club was soon awarded funds from a larger Mellon Grant, and these funds sponsored a survey sent to the entire student body. Burright and her colleagues collected responses to questions about how prepared Whitman students felt academically, what kind of personal belongings they brought to campus, whether they’d ever been to the theater or the symphony – all questions that correlated somehow to class – and found in these indicators opportunities for a more supportive Whitman, which they immediately shared with campus leaders.
Ashley Hansack ’15, the first-generation student and former president of FGWC who spoke with Burright at the “Opportunity” event, said Burright is modest about taking credit for the changes that survey helped institute, but the current class is still reaping its rewards. Art fees are now included in financial aid packages, for instance, and off-campus study opportunities are more inclusive.
“We’ve had speakers before [who speak out of] the anger and sadness we sometimes share – but we need to hear both the negative and the positive,” Hansack said.
“Harmony definitely brought that positivity to campus — and not superficially.”
Maricela Sanchez-Garcia ’16, a past co-president of FGWC, agreed, having found Burright’s advice inspiring.
The talk was “very empowering, the way she spoke about her past and put it out on the table. She succeeded despite her obstacles. I was very happy that someone who came from a background like mine is out there doing bigger and better things, that gives us some motivation and strength,” Sanchez-Garcia said.
Bigger and better things, for Burright, means making the world a cleaner, better place. After she graduated summa cum laude in 2006 with an honors degree in Politics and Environmental Studies, she visited her ancestral roots in Denmark then returned to Walla Walla to work with a consulting firm involved in environmental cleanup. Before long, she was admitted to Oregon State University’s graduate program in Water Resources Management, from which she received her Master’s degree in 2011.
The story of Burright’s own approach to college and future success mirrors her advice for incoming first-generation students: when she was here, she got involved. Really involved: cross-country, theater, animal rights activism, volunteering, student budget committee, involvement with local groups, internships, ASWC – the list goes on.
“At a place like Whitman, the success of students relies on so much more than faculty or staff,” she said.
Burright and her husband, whom she met in Walla Walla, have been living and traveling on a sailboat since 2012. They are currently docked in Panama; before departing on the long journey back to Panama, she gave one last suggestion for students who feel themselves drifting:
“If you feel lost, stop and ask for directions. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get involved with FGWC, try to find your voice on campus. If you’re able, be brave and share your story in other contexts campus-wide and classroom discussions.”
Whitman and its students work together to keep the college experience flowing smoothly for everyone. Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland, one of many campus leaders devoted to exploring student needs, notes that conversations with students about how best to support the entire college community are ongoing.
“Whitman students have always taken initiative in ways that matter,” he said. “Breaking down barriers is what we’re trying to do.”
Here are three FGWC-suggested goals Whitman is currently working toward:
Though its structure is still taking shape, a transition program for FGWC and other incoming students who want extra help learning to navigate Whitman is in the works.
Expanded Support for the FGWC Mentorship Program
The FGWC mentorship program, which pairs first-year students with more experienced students, has been managed by volunteer FGWC members in the past. Going forward, Whitman expects to expand the program and the college’s support for it.
Increased Resource Visibility
Programs like the one that brought Harmony Burright to campus, organized by the Intercultural Center and the Student Engagement Center, demonstrate student potential when it comes to maximizing on-campus possibilities. New ways to raise awareness of the existing resources on campus are currently part of the discussion between students, staff and faculty.