The First-Generation, Low-Income student organization (FGLI) at William & Mary promotes a sense of belonging and inclusion in the university community through advocacy, mentorship and leadership development. This is the first of two profiles on W&M students who credit the FGLI community for helping them flourish during their time at the university. – Ed.

By embracing her background as a first-generation, low-income student at William & Mary, Hannah Dow ’23 believes she was able to get the most out of her university experience.

And now she finds herself on the threshold of becoming the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

“I don’t think being a first-generation, low-income student defines who I am, but it does make up a big part of who I am and my motivations and my perception of things,” said Dow, an American studies major from Danville, Virginia.

Dow, who came to W&M as a James Monroe Scholar, was open with her professors and classmates about being a first-generation, low-income student. It allowed her to develop connections with people of similar backgrounds and led her to get involved in W&M’s First-Generation, Low-Income (FGLI) student organization.

Founded by students in 2020, FGLI is part of W&M’s Office of Student Engagement & Leadership that promotes a sense of belonging and inclusion in the university community through advocacy, mentorship and leadership development.

“The FGLI story and the FGLI path to college is a story of resilience, and it’s one that should be celebrated rather than diminished or discredited,” Dow said.

“What I would say to future FGLI students at William & Mary is don’t be ashamed of where you came from and how you got where you are. Be proud of it, and you might be surprised how seeking out other FGLI students can benefit your overall experience by having a circle of friends you identify with.”

Early in her time at W&M, Dow shared her story with Charles McGovern, director of American studies at W&M, and she was pleasantly surprised when McGovern revealed he was a first-generation, low-income student once as well.

McGovern has been a source of support throughout Dow’s journey at W&M.

“With him, it was less about connecting me with resources and more of just being that support and telling me, ‘You can do it. I know it’s overwhelming, but it’s OK. You’re gonna do it,’” Dow said. “Sometimes that little whisper in your ear is all you need.”

Dow got involved with FGLI almost immediately, taking on the role of advocacy chair when she arrived on campus last September. As advocacy chair, Dow says she “stands up for FGLI students,” bringing issues FGLI students face to university administration.

Dow has helped implement important policy changes at the university and has created awareness for issues she felt needed stronger support.

Incremental progress is gratifying, Dow says, but she has her sights on bigger things. For example, she is advocating for a university staff position solely dedicated to FGLI student support.

“I think the FGLI student experience is a very distinct experience, and it’s even more distinct at William & Mary because of the demographics that we have here,” she said.

Dow is proud of what she has accomplished in her time at William & Mary, but she says she still feels guilty for leaving behind her family to pursue her education. She said it is a feeling that many FGLI students at W&M share.

“I felt so guilty for leaving, so I really needed someone else to not make me feel guilty for coming to college,” Dow said. “My mentors and professors helped me do that.”

Dow lived with her grandparents back home, and she cared for both while they were dealing with health problems right before she left for college. Dow says things are better back home now, but the guilt doesn’t go away.

“I talk to them every day, and I think that gives me that assurance that at least I know what’s going on,” Dow said. “They’re only three hours down the road, so if something happens, I can go back.” 

Dow said she made it to William & Mary because of “everything my family has done for me and everything they’ve ever instilled in me in terms of loving me and supporting me and telling me I can do whatever I put my mind to. Not everyone has that,” she said.

“I did the work in terms of getting myself here, but they did the work in terms of making me think I could do that at all.”

Dow has had a lot of support at home, as well as from the W&M community. In addition to McGovern, Dow credits Dot Osborne, her pre-major advisor in the School of Education, and Shené Owens, the associate director at the Center for Student Diversity and PLUS program director, for helping her find her place at the university.

“Like all the FGLI students, Hannah has the talent to reach her goals,” McGovern said. “But so many folks here need more – encouragement and occasionally someone to translate the institution for them.”

Dow aspires to work in higher education, a passion that was sparked during her time at W&M.

She says the support from William & Mary has been “overwhelming” and “empowering.” She says she has benefitted greatly from her mentors at W&M and she wants to give back in similar ways.

“That’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the past two years is doing whatever I can to put myself in mentorship positions in any type of way to promote students’ sense of belonging on campus,” Dow said. “I love when I can support other people around me. I feel like I succeed when people around me succeed.”

, Communications Specialist