Elizabeth Berndt-Morris with first-years at Widener Library.

Librarian Elizabeth Berndt-Morris welcomes incoming students at Widener Library.

Photos by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

First time for first-year retreat

Program welcomes new students from underrepresented backgrounds

5 min read

Many incoming Harvard College students have long gotten a jumpstart on the Crimson experience through pre-orientation programs in the week before move-in day. Now there is also the First-Year Retreat and Experience (FYRE), four days of activities and events designed for students from a range of underrepresented backgrounds.

The aim of the program, currently a two-year pilot supported by the Dean of Students Office, is to help incoming students who are the first in their families to go to college or are from modest economic means, or both, feel they belong at Harvard, said Andrew Pérez ’20. Pérez is a first-generation student from Los Angeles and the co-chair and driving force behind this initiative backed by Harvard students and administrators. The group’s message, he said, is “You made it here, you belong here, it’s going to be OK.”

At a welcoming event on Thursday evening, Harvard’s new president reinforced that message.

In keeping with the reputation he had when he led Tufts University as a hands-on, approachable leader, President Larry Bacow accepted an email invitation from Pérez earlier this month to address the group, which also met with Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, and Sarah Thomas, vice president of the Harvard Library.

As about 95 FYRE participants filed into Widener Library’s vaulted Loker Reading Room, Bacow stood in the doorway, shaking hands and introducing himself as Larry. Later, in brief remarks, he encouraged the students not to be afraid to ask questions, to make connections with people, and to be “generous with your time to your classmates.”

“Seek out people who are different from you, and engage in the deep conversations, sometimes the hard conversations, to try to see and understand the world through other people’s eyes.”

Harvard President Larry Bacow
Andrew Perez, Larry Bacow, James Bedford.
FYRE co-chairs Andrew Pérez (left) and James Bedford present Harvard President Larry Bacow with a T-shirt.

Like many other colleges and universities, Bacow said Harvard aims to create a community of students who bring with them a range of backgrounds and experiences “because we believe that we learn from our differences.”

“Seek out people who are different from you, and engage in the deep conversations, sometimes the hard conversations,” said Bacow, “to try to see and understand the world through other people’s eyes.”

The first in her family to go to college, Asa Coleman said her initial FYRE experience immediately made her feel welcome and helped immerse her in Harvard.

“I come from a really close-knit family, so the fact that they call these [groups of students we’ve been divided into] FYRE families really helped me to see that I would find community here,” said Coleman.

Bacow’s welcome, she added, also made her feel at home.

“That was amazing. I actually was so surprised to have him shake my hand, and it kind of told me that I am just as valuable as any other student to him, and that I’m not here by accident.”

All FYRE participants received a book selected by a faculty member, administrator, or graduate. Maggie Chen unwraps hers with librarian Tamar Brown.

Maggie Chen and Tamar Brown.

During the evening reception, each FYRE participant received a book selected by a faculty member, administrator, or graduate. Coleman opened a gift-wrapped compilation of seven novels by Jane Austen with an inscription from the Harvard Alumni Association member she had met in her home state of New Jersey.

“[While] Austen’s heroines may be far removed from today’s lives, their kindness and courage and ability to learn from their mistakes is something that we can all take forward,” read the handwritten note to Coleman.

 Nearby, James Garavito, an incoming Canaday resident, said that he was grateful for the FYRE program and that he welcomed the message delivered by Bacow and others that “everyone is approachable, and Harvard is here for you.”

“That mutualistic relationship is really important, and it’s what makes Harvard Harvard,” said Garavito. “I am excited to spend my next four years here. I hope to make my family proud, my town proud, and to change the world.”

The mood was festive as FYRE student leaders welcomed the new students, who had checked in earlier at the Wigglesworth dorm. Clad in red T-shirts adorned with a FYRE logo and the line “This First-Year’s on FYRE,” the smiling organizers waved pompoms, offered Dunkin’ Donuts treats, and played dance music.

During a break from his welcoming duties, Pérez, a Mather House junior and sociology concentrator who had worked on FYRE for the past two years with other students and administrators, said he knows what it feels like to try to fit in at a school that can seem overwhelming. The first in his family to go to college, Pérez had left the public school system in his native Los Angeles for a private high school, where he initially struggled with culture shock and imposter syndrome. He eventually helped create a bridge program for underrepresented students, a precursor to his work at Harvard.

The FYRE program includes meetings with student leaders and faculty, along with representatives from Harvard’s Financial Aid Office, the Office of Career Services, the Harvard College Bureau of Study Counsel, and the Harvard University Health Services Counseling and Mental Health Office. Other outings include a hip-hop yoga session, a panel discussion on belonging, trips for ice cream and to the Harvard Art Museums, and a disco party.

The goal, said Pérez, is to help incoming students “truly take advantage of everything Harvard has to offer.” But it’s also about making them feel secure and welcome on campus, and letting them know that they “don’t need to hide where they came from,” and that it’s “valid to have their own unique story.”