As a high school senior in Texas, Summer Allison ’23 produced a paper for her dual credit English course that would have an enormous effect on her future.
“I wrote about the benefits of women’s colleges and how they foster leadership in women,” she says. “Since that paper, I always wanted to come to a women’s college because I thought it would be the best option for myself, particularly because I’m first generation, low income. I thought that the best option for me would be having the ability to create leadership within myself. I also thought Virginia would be a nice change of pace from Texas, and maybe Hollins would be right up my alley.”
As fate would have it, Hollins was launching a new program called FLI, designed to serve first-generation, limited-income students. Allison was invited to be part of FLI’s first cohort during her first year.
“I think the attributes that attracted me to FLI was that I knew I wouldn’t have my mother to depend on here. Also, I grew up in a small town where you go to school with the same people you’ve always known. I wouldn’t have that here and there was no one for me to fall back on. I knew I had to establish relationships early on, and if there is one characteristic of myself where I wanted to belong, it’s definitely first generation and low income.”
FLI is led by sophomore, junior, and senior mentors who work closely with students during pre-orientation and throughout the academic year to enable them to build relationships, connect with valuable resources, and learn important tips for success. Drawing upon their own first-hand experiences, the guides had a profound impact on Allison. “They relied on what they personally knew about campus to give us knowledge rather than something that was just cut-and-dried like, ‘This is what our training says to tell you.’ It was very insightful and really cool.”
For Allison, having those connections throughout her first year made a major difference in her adjustment to college life. “I knew I always had at least one person that I could ask questions without feeling like an idiot, feeling like I don’t belong, or feeling like I should already know that answer. That was big, being able to communicate with a person like me enough to understand my perspective and not make me feel as though I were an outsider.”
When Allison made the transition to FLI Guide her sophomore year, she was able to draw upon more than just her first-year Hollins experience to help new students. For a number of years, Allison has been supported by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is devoted “to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need.” She applied to the organization’s Young Scholars Program when she became eligible at age 12, and subsequently was accepted into the Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program, which will enable her to graduate from Hollins debt-free. (Read more about the Cooke Foundation’s impact on Allison.)
“I thought there were aspects of what I knew from being in the Cooke Foundation and working my way to be able to go to college in the first place that I could add to the FLI program,” she explains. “I never wanted my position to just be ‘guide.’ I genuinely wanted to be friends with the students. It’s about being nurturing as much as it is understanding what I have from training and being able to apply it.”
When FLI students first arrive on campus, Allison focuses significant effort on helping them make the switch from the high school to the college environment. “They don’t always understand that within the university, it’s actually a little town, a community. They don’t know the layout of the campus and they have no idea about the offices and services that are most beneficial to them. They don’t know how to look for those things, but I also don’t think they were given the skills necessary to even think to look for those things. The way that you depend on your parents when you’re not in college, transitioning to a college where you may be miles away from your parents is incredibly daunting.”
So, Allison gives her students a crash course in learning the Hollins campus, inside and out. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to take you to the library, the IT department, Health and Counseling Center, and Career Center. I’m going to show you where the business office, registrar, and financial aid are located.’ I’m always here to help, but this is what they are going to need in their own arsenal to navigate college life.”
Allison is double majoring in sociology and public health, and has helped establish a public health club at Hollins. “We want to provide practical knowledge such as how to have safe sex or how to apply for health insurance, especially if you’re from out of state and you might need something like Medicaid. We also want to inform students about policies that are being enacted, how those affect them directly, and why it’s in their best interest to vote for people who would create the most beneficial policies for us particularly as a student body.”
With the Cooke Foundation’s continued financial support, Allison plans to attend graduate school after Hollins and is considering careers in environmental law (“Climate change is having a big impact on public health.”) and public policy analysis.
Allison’s passion for activism, particularly on one’s own behalf, is something she seeks to instill in FLI students. “If you’re absolutely itching to go to college, you’ve got to take that into your own hands. You cannot wish, hope, or pray that someone else will do it for you. You have to represent yourself as a first-generation, low-income student who is worthy to go to college. Advocate for yourself. Find a network of people that is willing to help you realize that dream.”
Allison encourages other Hollins students to join FLI and argues the program should not be stigmatizing. “Changing the name ‘first generation, low income’ would be concealing our identity in a way that harms us more than it benefits us. I don’t think participating in a program that is meant to help you and only you in your particular circumstances is a bad thing. What we do is so integral to first-year students.”
In light of the fact that she had to overcome so many obstacles to attend Hollins, Allison says she chooses to view FLI “as a symbol of pride. I think other people should do the same.”