It’s hard to believe it, but November marked my ninth month at the University and fourth month of full-time residency in Rochester. And as long as I’m benchmarking things, fall officially started; baseball officially ended (for Little League and the MLB—sadly, for my Cleveland Guardians it ended in October); and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) held its bi-annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

This is the second time I have attended an ARL meeting. One of the great things about gathering with other deans and university librarians is it allows me to get the temperature of where higher education is at the moment. In this case, I walked away feeling like we are all still figuring out what the post-pandemic world looks like. Somethings are crystal clear, like how our students want mobility and engagement in traditional and non-traditional learning modalities. However, what that looks like five years from now is hazier.

Not long after the ARL meeting I attended the National First-Generation College Celebration. I was invited by keynote speaker Ronald Williams II, a professor in the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina. We met during the height of the pandemic while I was still at Harvard, but have stayed in touch. So, I jumped at the opportunity to listen to his story.

Professor Williams’ story was compelling and thoroughly relatable. His message to the first-generation students was simple and straightforward: find a mentor, engage on campus, and take care of yourself. The first two are common enough, but the idea of taking care of yourself is rare advice in a culture that often promotes “success no matter the cost.” He also talked about friendship and travel during his academic journey. It was a truly uplifting speech.

I left feeling inspired, but I also felt like I had a much better understanding of a first-generation student’s perspective. My mother was a first-generation student who earned her bachelor's degree the same year I received mine. She was immensely proud, and we were immensely proud of her. Yet, looking back, the full weight of her achievement and the extent of her journey were lost on me. I am grateful for Professor Williams's insights, which allowed to gain a greater appreciation for her accomplishment.

My recent experience with Professor Williams also reinforced the importance of doing what we can to support student needs beyond the classroom. For many of our students, our spaces are not just areas to study; they’re also places to socialize, have a meal or rest between classes, and otherwise engage in University life. In that way, we are a different kind of “home away from home,” for students, and I do not take that responsibility lightly.

Kevin Garewal
Vice Provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean
University of Rochester Libraries