In June and July, Whitman flew two cohorts of first-year students from across the country to Walla Walla for a special pre-semester orientation program.

These fly-ins, now in their second year, are designed for first-generation or working-class students, with the aim of easing the transition to college life. During each program, students are familiarized with the campus, faculty and staff members, as well as the range of resources available to them, such as financial aid, the writing center, health services and student activities. They also have the chance to preview Whitman academics by taking part in small classroom discussions led by their future professors. 

summer fly-in group“I would not have been able to comfortably go into offices and ask for help when I needed it if I hadn’t participated in the fly-in program,” said Ye Rim Cho ’19, a member of last year’s inaugural session who returned this summer as a student leader.

“It holds a special place in my heart as a kick-start program that’s helped bridge the gap for under-resourced students like me.”

Studies show that students whose parents did not attend college receive less emotional, informational and financial support than peers whose parents did. First-generation students also report higher levels of stress and anxiety upon arrival at college, often stemming from feeling “out of place” among classmates from non-working class backgrounds, who may find it easier to navigate their new surroundings.

Jessica Rodriguez ’20 traveled from Illinois to attend the June orientation, one of about 20 students in her group.

“I’ve never heard personal stories from my family about what college is going to be like. My dad went to high school and he kind of gave me an idea, but for college they’re just like, ‘alright, goodbye! Figure it out,’” she laughed.

Olivia Engle ’20 added, “There are a lot of movies about high school, and you’ve been either with siblings or your mom and dad usually went to high school, but with college some of us don’t really know what to expect.”

Nationwide, only 40 percent of first-generation college students earn their bachelor’s degree within six years. Although Whitman’s graduation rate for first-generation students is higher than the national average, with 76 percent receiving a degree in four years, these students still face significant challenges.

That’s why programs like the summer fly-ins have become a top priority for Whitman.

“The fly-in was a big factor in my success as a first-year,” said Aisha Kimbrough ’19, another former participant turned leader. “It made me confident in the decisions I made and it helped with the social area of my life, because I came into college with a group of students I could trust and relate to.”

Associate Deans of Students Juli Dunn and Barbara Maxwell and Assistant Director of the Intercultural Center Maggi Banderas ’05 worked hard to make the fly-in program soar.

“At the end of four short days, it was clear that this group of students had bonded, they were less worried about coming to a new place and the most commonly heard comment was ‘I can't wait to come back,’” said Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Kazi Joshua. “I think this is one of the most rewarding programs that we have conceived and the impact is real. It is my hope that we will continue to serve many more students like this group in the future and beyond.”