During Kenneth Brown Jr.’s freshman year at Elon, he realized he wanted to use his knowledge in communications to help people. With that thought in mind — and his dislike of carrying around camera equipment — Brown switched his major from communications to human service studies, a social work degree that would allow him to follow his passions in making higher education more accessible.
Four years after his 2019 graduation, Brown returned in June to Elon University as the assistant director of first-generation student support services, located within the Center for Access and Success.
In his new role, Brown said he hopes to foster and grow the First Phoenix Mentoring Program, which connects first-generation freshmen with first-generation upperclassmen, as well as promote Elon’s resources.
“My goal is to help you thrive. How can you be successful? How can you take advantage of all that Elon has to offer?” Brown said. “My role is really to connect the gaps. To build a bridge.”
Rising sophomore Selma Maric is a first generation college student and said she did not know about first generation services until after she decided to attend Elon. She said she feels the program needs to be promoted on a larger scale.
“I know a lot of first generation students, when I had met them on campus, that weren't a part of the program, didn't even know that it existed,” Maric said. “I think that the program is doing a great job reaching out to students, but I just hope that they're reaching out to the rising class so that they can have a chance to take part in it.”
Rising sophomore Janeeta Smith also said she appreciates the support the university offers as an Odyssey Scholar and first generation student. The Odyssey Program is for community-oriented and civilly engaged students and offers a merit-based grant, according to the university's website.
“We have a place here on campus, we are meant to be here,” Smith said.“I'm really hoping that he helps to bring us together in hopes to really put effort into making sure that incoming freshmen, first generation students and current first generation students have their place.”
An Odyssey Scholar himself, Brown said he understands the importance of finding a safe space for students in higher education to discover what paths they want to follow.
“Elon is one of the influential places that really saved me, and I'm happy to be in a position where, hopefully for other students, that can be an influential place to shape what they want to do with their lives,” Brown said.
Similar to Brown, Maric said the first generation support has had a great impact on her time at Elon, making her feel more comfortable at college.
“To me the program just means hope, honestly, because it really just put a lot of trust in me my first year because I walked in so nervous and scared and I didn't really know anything about college,” Maric said. “The program just really helped me a lot and was always there checking up on me, sending me emails throughout the year and providing events for me to go to that served as sort of like a mental health check in, which was just really great for me.”
Though first generation support services started in 2019 and took a dip due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown said he is very optimistic about where the program can go — including a possible first generation living learning community. Brown said he is heading into the semester with a variety of ideas to grow and develop the support systems for first generation students.
“There's a lot of work to be done,” Brown said. “Heading into this semester, really looking forward to building out what a fully fleshed out first gen program can look like. I've gotten the sense that because of COVID, because of the pandemic, the first generation program really never got off the ground.”
Ryan Kupperman contributed to the reporting of this story.