By Grace Ferguson
This January, BU is opening a new center for first-generation college students.
It will be called the Newbury Center, after Newbury College, a small school in Brookline that closed in 2019. The college endowed BU with $6 million.
The university has appointed Maria Erb as the Newbury Center’s inaugural director. She comes from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was the co-director of diversity and student success in The Graduate School.
Associate Provost for Community and Inclusion Crystal Williams said BU conducted a national search to fill the director position. Erb stuck out to Williams because she was so focused on building lasting relationships with students.
“She just emerged as an extraordinary candidate,” Williams said. “I feel so fortunate that she is excited to come to BU and help build this endeavor.”
While at UNC, Erb led an initiative for first-generation graduate students. Before that, she supported first-generation and low-income students at Elon University. She is also a member of the Advocacy Group for the Center for First-Generation Student Success, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C.
Erb is a first-generation student herself. She said that helping other first-generation students has been a common thread throughout her career.
“It’s always thinking about how can I make it better for students knowing what I didn’t have and provide those opportunities and that support for them as they’re going up through their bachelor’s and master’s and doctoral degrees, and professional degrees,” Erb said.
The Newbury Center is aimed at increasing first-generation students’ engagement with BU’s programs. Williams said that these students often struggle to take advantage of everything a university has to offer, including things like internships, study abroad programs, and alumni networks.
“If no one in your family has gone to college, then you have no one to ask at home, ‘Where do I go?’ or ‘What should I do?’ or ‘How do I think about navigating this?’” Williams said.
Being a first-generation student can affect the college experience in less tangible ways too. Some first-generation students who come from low-income backgrounds feel alienated by the amount of wealth they see on campus. Some of them also feel an immense pressure to perform, knowing that their family is watching.
“There are very complicated and personal questions first-gen students are turning over, and they’re often doing that by themselves and in isolation,” Williams said. “And I don’t think that that is either necessary or good, and we can help with that.”
Part of Erb’s job when she comes to BU will be to figure out the best ways to help these students.
“My philosophy that I work from is very student-centered, so it doesn’t help if I just create programs that I think are good. I need to make sure that I’m meeting the needs of the students,” Erb said. “So I accomplish that through student advisory boards, making sure that there’s input from the students.”
One reason first-generation students don’t get the help they need because their struggle isn’t always obvious to those around them.
“Those are challenges that, I think, many people don’t think about unless you say, ‘These are the issues,’ and then people are like, ‘Oh, okay,’” Erb said. “Because being first-generation in college is an invisible identity, to a certain degree, where people don’t really know unless you tell your story.”
Both Williams and Erb pointed out that an important part of serving first-generation students is recognizing their diversity. They come from a variety of places and backgrounds, so they have a variety of different needs.
Williams said that this recognition can have a positive effect on the BU community as a whole.
“One of my beliefs is that the more we as a community talk about our distinctiveness as individuals—and as groups of individuals—and talk about it with the goal of valuing those differences, I think we become a healthier, more vibrant, more interesting community,” Williams said.
The Newbury Center won’t only serve undergraduates. The university is also working to build a community of graduate students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are the first in their families to go to college. Already, Williams said she has identified 350 of these faculty and staff.
“What I know about first-gen undergraduates, at least, is that when you connect them in cohorts, and show them how the differences even between them are a source of mutual power and effectiveness—boy do they latch onto that,” Williams said. “And they push into it and they use it like nobody’s business. So I can’t wait to see what that looks like across these multiple groups of people.”