Learning to FLI

November 15, 2022

First-generation and limited-income students find common ground through Spiders FLI 

Denis Velazquez-Mondragon, ‘26, and Brian Garcia, '24
Shay Harris, ’25, and Chloe Goode, '26

Hosted by the Student Center for Equity and Inclusion, the Spiders FLI program helps first-generation and/or limited-income students adapt to college life and succeed during their time on campus and beyond. The program offers general information, networking and mentoring opportunities, leadership experiences, and community-building events, all while recognizing and celebrating the accomplishments of each student involved. Spiders FLI has recently received generous support from Cornelia and Charles Ellwein, P’24, and Kristy and Mihir Patel, ’02. We spoke with four students who are grateful to be involved with Spiders FLI:

BRIAN GARCIA, ’24

  • Second-time mentor and former mentee
  • Mentee: Denis Velazquez-Mondragon, ‘26
  • Hometown: Chicago, Illinois 
  • Major: Mathematics; minors in women, gender, and sexuality studies and secondary teacher education

Why did you get involved with Spiders FLI?

I was lost with the idea of college. I was clueless about life and academics here at the University. Spiders FLI provided me with guidance and support, whenever I needed it. [During] my freshman year, my mentors always knew how to support me, even if it was just listening to me talk about what I’m dealing with. My mentors allowed me to build a relationship with them to the point where I could be a resource of support as well. We would listen and give advice to each other because college was a new learning experience for the three of us. Through my experience with my mentors, I knew I wanted to be that resource for others as well, which is why I decided to become a mentor.

What has your experience been like so far?

My experience so far has been amazing. I [have been] able to [meet] new people and build connections with everyone involved. The programmed events help me feel like I’m not alone on this journey. Additionally, I’m most excited to get to know my mentee and share advice  with one another.

What does it mean knowing that Spiders FLI receives donor support?

It feels great. We’re finally being recognized as a group who needs constant support, otherwise we would end up lost in an unknown world. It also puts into perspective that people outside of the University recognize that this is a problem in many universities, and slowly, we’re trying to fix it.

How is Spiders FLI impacting your UR experience overall?

So far, Spiders FLI has made me feel more comfortable on campus. Being at a predominately white institution, it [can be tough] to feel a sense of belonging and that we deserve to be on campus. This program is a constant reassurance that my hard work and dedication have brought me here, and it will continue to do so until graduation.

DENIS VELAZQUEZ-MONDRAGON, ’26

  • First-year mentee
  • Mentor: Brian Garcia, ’24
  • Hometown: Bessemer, Alabama
  • Anticipated major: Psychology with a concentration in neuroscience (pre-med) 

Why did you get involved with Spiders FLI?

It allowed me to interact with a mentor to guide me through my transition into college. As a first-generation student, this process is very important for me, as having a connection with an upperclassman would allow me to have a support system and an individual to connect with on the struggles that I know they have gone through as well. It has been really exciting getting to know my mentor and connecting with him on various topics such as work-life balance, homesickness, and time management. We have also shared our expressed love for Latinx food; we hope to try some in the Richmond area soon!

What does it mean knowing that Spiders FLI receives donor support?

I am grateful [for] donor support because it means there [are] individuals who care about the college transition for first-generation and limited-income students. This program has served me in many ways, such as finding close friends who I eat dinner with on occasion and successfully acclimating to life at UR. It was a very hard experience at first – being far from  home with no idea how to ease into college life. But with Spiders FLI and my mentor, it has been a pleasure. He’s not only available for me when I have any questions, but also when I am [stressed] about classes and homework. I’m also grateful [that] my mentor has become a friend who I can talk to when times get rough.

How is Spiders FLI impacting your UR experience overall?

Spiders FLI has impacted my UR experience in just a few shorts weeks, and I can’t wait to see how I progress into helping and aiding students like me through Spiders FLI in the future. Without Spiders FLI, the transition into college life at UR would’ve been more complicated. I know I would still be struggling without this support.

SHAY HARRIS, ’25

  • First-time mentor and former mentee
  • Mentee: Chloe Goode, ’26
  • Hometown: Chesterfield, Virginia
  • Anticipated major: Psychology; minor in education and society

Why did you get involved with Spiders FLI?

The thought of coming to a college like the University of Richmond without any support system was frequently on my mind after I was accepted. I was worried about what  it meant for me to be going to a predominately white institution, not only as a Black person, but as a limited-income student. As soon as I received an email about this opportunity to not only meet other students in similar situations but to have mentors that would guide me, I decided to apply to the mentor-mentee program.

What has your experience been like so far?

My experience has been nothing but positive, as I was able to create and deepen connections with both upperclassmen and students my own year as soon as I got to campus. Coming into sophomore year, I am already reaping the benefits of the program, as I have a network of people I can learn from and go to for advice about situations that my parents are unable to help with. The part of the program I am most excited about this year is spending time with my mentees and helping them get adjusted to campus by creating a safe space for them to be heard. The most important thing to me is that my mentees know that they have resources and people to go to if/when they need to.

What does it mean knowing that Spiders FLI receives donor support?

Having donor support really means a lot [because] it shows that our needs as first-gen and/or limited-income students are actually being considered and efforts are being made to support us. It also signifies that Spiders  FLI as an organization is expanding its reach to the point where people care enough to financially support us. It is truly surreal [to think] about how I am involved at a time when these big changes are being made.

How is Spiders FLI impacting your UR experience overall?

Spider FLI has done so much for me already and I have only just started my second year at UR. Being a mentee last year was probably the best decision I could have made going into college because it provided me [with] a community to turn to when I need the kind of support [that] I am unable to receive from a majority of my peers. Additionally, it’s given me a safe space to grow and develop important skills that will aid me in my education. Of course, I cannot forget to mention [Associate Director, Student Center for Equity and Inclusion] Lisa Miles, who has been instrumental in my current direction of giving back to my community by becoming a mentor myself this year and hopefully until I graduate. Overall, I feel like Spiders FLI will greatly impact my experience at UR in a helpful way because of the main goal for first gen and/or limited-income students to have guidance on campus … by creating a social network and holding events that make daunting academic pursuits such as internships more attainable.

CHLOE GOODE, ’26

  • First-year mentee
  • Mentor: Shay Harris, ’25
  • Hometown: Henrico, Virginia
  • Anticipated major: Leadership and philosophy, politics, economics, and law

Why did you get involved with Spiders FLI?

I joined FLI to find a community of people with similar backgrounds as me. As I was in the process of committing to Richmond, one of my worries was feeling like an outsider because of my financial status. I thought that FLI could help connect me with individuals who may have shared the same fear before coming to college and are in the same boat as me when it comes to funding this new lifestyle.

What has your experience been like so far?

FLI has been an extremely welcoming and supportive group. It’s been so amazing to connect with my mentor and all the other students. I’ve started to recognize individuals and make connections outside of our meetings. It makes me feel seen when I can walk around campus and know that I am not the only one who shares this identity. I’m really excited to continue to get to know everyone and make meaningful relationships.

What does it mean knowing that Spiders FLI receives donor support?

It makes me happy to hear that there are individuals who are willing to pour into the lives of those that they don’t  even know. It makes me optimistic about the people that I will encounter as an adult and assures me that the support that I’m receiving on campus is also available elsewhere.

How is Spiders FLI impacting your UR experience overall?

I think FLI will give me the opportunity to continually ground myself. Especially during this transitional period, it’s been easy for me to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of school and forget to have consistent self-reflection, which is key for personal growth. FLI gives  me the opportunity to lean into this part of my identity, and thus feel more connected with my background and essential self.

To learn more about the Spiders FLI program, please contact Lisa Gradone Miles at lmiles@richmond.edu or 804-484-1655.