When Charly Bloomquist talks about first-generation students, emotions brim close to the surface.
“It’s super personal,” said Bloomquist, a senior adjunct professor of art at Whitman College. “My wife, Professor Julie Charlip, is first-gen. And my dad was first-gen. He wouldn’t have gone to college if it wasn’t for the GI Bill.”
After earning his degree, Bloomquist’s father was working class — he operated a stock room and the printing facilities at a small prestigious college. His mother came from a long line of college graduates — lawyers and doctors and entrepreneurs.
“I grew up between these two factions. And the people on my mom’s side were so college educated, they assumed that everyone knew everything about college. I had many of the normal first-year questions. But I had some help finding out how to solve them,” he said. “Still, I have an appreciation for kids who come to college and don’t know what it’s about, and don’t know how to find the answers.”
In 2015, Assistant Dean of Students Juli Dunn approached the Art Department to help with a new project aimed at first-generation students.
“She came and said, ‘We want to do this Summer Fly-In program, what could you help us with?’ and I said, ‘I think I can make up an art project that will take them about an hour. I’ll do it.’” Bloomquist said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
This May, the students who participated in that first Fly-In program will earn their degrees — many of them the first in their family to do so, and all from working-class backgrounds.
“I think it’s one of the best programs that the school has developed,” he said. “I’ll do it every summer, because I have an affinity for helping kids overcome that big problem of ‘What the heck do I do here?’”
A Guiding Hand
A large portion of the Summer Fly-In is dedicated to helping incoming first-year students learn about the resources available to them at Whitman — from financial support to internships and jobs, to health and counseling resources. The program also introduces them to the people who will become their biggest advocates: Faculty.
Bloomquist’s piece is introducing the students to the art program. Including an art class was important, Dunn said. In planning the first Fly-In, Dunn said members of the college’s First-Generation/Working-Class (FGWC) Club wanted art included.
“Students felt like they couldn’t do art — because there were course fees, it wasn’t practical, their parents wouldn’t like it,” she said. “But now, as a department, they probably have more Summer Fly-In majors than any other department. There’s something going on there.”
Bloomquist has noticed the trend, too. He attributes it to students from working-class backgrounds being less likely to go to schools with well-funded art programs. But art connects with the brain in a different way than math and science, Bloomquist said. And it’s a crucial part of a well-rounded liberal arts education.
“I can do math and science, but I don’t know why to do math and science,” he said. “I know why to do art. It helps you process the world.”
Andrea Dobson, associate professor of astronomy and general studies, has also been involved in the Fly-In since the beginning. She introduces the students to the sciences at Whitman, but more importantly is interested in seeing them develop as learners.
“We want our students to thrive — we want them to develop personal responsibility, particularly for their learning,” she said. “For most students, that’s more likely to happen if they’re more fully engaged with the campus community and able to take advantage of the resources that are available. You develop more independence by learning where to ask for help.”
The FGWC students who get invited to Fly-In are not less prepared academically than their more affluent peers, but the gap in knowledge about how academia functions can be a real setback.
“Kids whose parents have gone to college can say to their parents, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ and the parent says, ‘You need to …’ Kids whose parents are first-gen and working class don’t necessarily have that,” Bloomquist said. “My dad’s association with administrators and professors at the college, along with his own first-gen experience helped him help me find the answers.”
In addition to introducing the students to art at Whitman, Bloomquist works to connect them with resources to make art accessible. For example, students can request funding from the Office of the Dean of Students to cover course fees.
“The fees for my class are $200 — wouldn’t it be nice if someone else was paying that?” Bloomquist said.
Making a Difference
Over the past four years, Bloomquist has seen Fly-In make a difference in the lives of the student participants.
“Last year, I saw kids who went through the program that first time being proctors, they were the ones who took the other kids around. To see the difference in them from the first year, seeing what great people they’ve turned out to be, that’s pretty satisfying,” Bloomquist said. “I know how young they were when they started, and how old they are now when they graduate. That’s a really great part about teaching. To see that is one of the good things about it for me.”
Dobson also exposes the students to things that may not have been accessible to them before. During her time with the students, if the weather is right, she takes them to the roof of the Hall of Science to look through the college’s telescopes.
“A third of the world’s population can no longer see the Milky Way,” she said. “One of the things that I want all my students to understand is that astronomy is not a video game. You can download so many cool pictures without actually looking at the sky yourself and knowing how to find the Big Dipper and that the thing might be Jupiter or Venus that you’re looking at. They think it’s cool.”
For Bloomquist, the reward comes in the cyanotype project he teaches. Cyanotype uses chemicals and sunlight to expose the shadows of images on paper.
“I think probably the most exciting part is that gasp when you put the paper in the water, and it changes,” he said. “That’s exciting for me because I remember the first time I put an exposed piece of paper into a developer and saw an image come up. It’s magic. I think that seeing kids do that is magic.”