Just before her first semester at Hamilton, during that period when everything is scary yet exciting and poised to take off, Amy Defnet ’16 received a note from the dean of admission inviting her to something called First Year Forward. Defnet had never heard of it, but her mother wisely advised her to investigate. Once on campus, she joined several dozen classmates at an introductory meeting in the Fillius Events Barn.

First Year Forward was a pilot program run by the Career Center designed to give a deserving group of new students with significant financial need an early leg up on an internship or other career-related experience. It would emphasize the importance of getting that experience and then help students attain it. Many students nominated to participate were the first in their family to attend college.

At that inaugural meeting in 2012, Defnet listened as Career Center staff members Janine Oliver, who coordinates the program, and Leslie Bell, who co-facilitates it, explained the benefits. During the academic year students would begin defining their career interests and develop skills such as writing a résumé and interviewing for a job. That’s the same kind of support the Career Center offers to any Hamilton student, but this group would receive it very early on. And the offer came with a cherry on top: a $2,000 stipend that would enable students to take part in an unpaid summer career experience — if they met the terms of the program.

The stipend was an incentive to capture students’ attention in the whirlwind of their first weeks at Hamilton. Great internships and career experiences often come without a paycheck, so they aren’t an option for students who need to earn money over the summer to cover their own expenses or contribute to the family income. 

“These are great students who are working really hard at Hamilton, and we want to make sure they have an equal experience and equal opportunities at the end of four years,” says Monica Inzer, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid, who nominates students for First Year Forward. “Sometimes that means providing the scaffolding for those who may not be exposed to the same networks as their peers due to parent connections, or those who may not be inclined to do an unpaid internship because their families are more dependent on them earning money during their summers.” 

If students lived up to the First Year Forward requirements, the stipend would enable them to take an unpaid summer opportunity that they would have to find, with help from the Career Center, by tapping into their networks, for instance getting an internship at a community center back home or job shadowing with their childhood dentist. And they would have to put in 150 hours at it. They would also be required to attend career-education sessions during their first academic year. 

When Defnet heard the details, and because Oliver and Bell were so kind and enthusiastic, she decided it would be silly not to take part. She went on to complete the program and spent the next summer at the Family Lives On Foundation, a nonprofit that offers services to grieving children. Her most significant task was working on a social media analytics project. 

“That summer I realized that the drive to do something for the social good is something I value in a job — and feel as though I have in my current position as well,” she says. Defnet got a post-college job as a policy analyst with APPRISE, a nonprofit that evaluates energy programs for utility companies and governments. She and the other members of the pilot First Year Forward group graduated in May, and the program, well past the pilot stage, is beginning its fifth year.

Another student in the pilot group, Ramon Villalona ’16, put in his 150 hours as a property inspection intern at Coldwell Banker Bellmarc, which at the time was a huge commercial real estate agency in Manhattan. That experience, and what he learned through First Year Forward, was a help to him throughout college. 

“For many Hamilton students, their parents have gone to college, work in fields like finance and can readily access networks from their immediate social groups,” he says. “For students like me, a HEOP [Higher Education Opportunities Program] scholar, the program levels the playing field. In many cases, I’d argue it even propels students ahead.” After graduation in May he started a job at Silicon Valley Bank. 

Of the 43 students nominated for the pilot year, 33 agreed to participate, and all of them completed the school-year requirements. Twenty-nine completed their 150 hours of summer work experience.

Each summer, Inzer sits down with the financial aid director to decide which incoming students are likely to make the most of First Year Forward. She considers their financial need, whether they are involved in other programs that provide extra support and other factors. Now that its first cohort of students has graduated, she’s asked the College’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment to study whether the program has made a difference. She likes what she’s seen so far — roughly 90 percent of the students who finished its academic-year requirements went on to find summer opportunities.

Mary McLean Evans ’82 headed the Career Center when it launched the program. She was in her first year leading the center when she approached Inzer to talk about how they could support first-generation students and those with limited resources. Evans believed that the earlier students start thinking about career-related activities, the longer “runway” they have to learn about and explore careers. The Career Center was working on a curriculum to that end.

“I knew that our neediest students would benefit from the longest runway possible, with the strongest possibility for connection with those alums and parents out there who were eager to help,” says Evans, who is now managing director of The Committee of 200, a membership organization of highly successful business women.

 Evans and Inzer both liked the idea of inviting first-year students to participate in a program that would get them into the Career Center and give them an incentive to stick with it. Evans raised the money for First Year Forward, and Oliver and Bell fully developed the curriculum. Oliver has tweaked it a bit over the years. Her hope is that students who finish First Year Forward head into their sophomore year ready to take advantage of the career resources at their disposal. 

And once students leave First Year Forward, they haven’t heard the last of Oliver.

“We never release them from our network. They are always my people, and so they get emails from me throughout their sophomore, junior and senior years, just reminding them that we’re here and what the resources are,” she says. “So these relationships, I think, are pretty key to their continued success and engagement with us.”

Paths taken by a few First Year Forward graduates

Joelle Baer ’16 with Professor of Physics Gordon Jones
Joelle Baer ’16 with Professor of Physics Gordon Jones

Joelle Baer ’16 

Hometown: Columbia, Md.

Major: Physics; minors in mathematics and religious studies

First Year Forward Summer Experience: Explored a range of STEM-related careers: shadowing high-school math and physics teachers, civil and transportation engineers, a National Health Institute statistician, technical and medical employees of government contractors, an architect

Currently: Ph.D. student in physics at the University of Wisconsin supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship;

“For me [First Year Forward] definitely gave me an idea of things I did not want to do, which then pushed me toward what I wanted to do. I realized that I definitely need more hands-on aspects to my work as well as interaction with people.

“My two summers after First Year Forward I spent at the National Institute for Standards and Technology as an undergraduate research fellow working with scientists to make and improve some of the instruments used to polarize the neutron beam at NIST’s Center for Neutron Research. I always tell people that before my first summer at NIST, I was dead set on not going to grad school for physics and pretty convinced that I was going to pursue engineering. It was my Hamilton advisor, [Professor of Physics] Gordon Jones, who does his research for the Center for Neutron Research, who suggested I apply. I believe he secretly wanted me to change my mind about my future career, and it absolutely worked. Once I was surrounded by physicists I knew that is exactly what I needed to do.”

Amy Defnet ’16
Amy Defnet ’16

Amy Defnet ’16

Hometown: Pottstown, Pa.

Major: Mathematics; minors in economics and physics

First Year Forward Summer Experience: Intern at the Family Lives On Foundation, a nonprofit that provides bereavement services to children

Currently: Policy analyst at APPRISE (Applied Public Policy Research Institution for Study and Evaluation), a nonprofit in Princeton, N.J., that evaluates energy programs

“While generous financial aid allowed me to even consider going to Hamilton, not getting paid for a summer was not really an option. At the time of my freshman year, my mom was a single mother putting three kids through college. Since most classic internships are not paid unless you are a junior, or at the very least a sophomore, I wasn’t even thinking of doing something career-related. Starting my senior year of high school, I worked part time at a retail store. I continued working there on college breaks and would most certainly have worked there more hours the summer after freshman year if it weren’t for First Year Forward. 

“As a freshman — and even as a senior — talking and thinking about my future was hard. It still is. But First Year Forward provided me with a solid foundation of how to go about that self-discovery process, as well as a group of people who wanted to help. In addition to introducing me to what the Career Center could offer, and showing me that it wasn’t a scary place after all, there were peers who were also navigating Hamilton from a different perspective than most. I made some good friends, and just knowing there were other students out there from a similar financial background helped.”

Bristol Fellowship
Amrika Sieunarine '16

Amrika Sieunarine ’16 

Hometown: Washington Heights, New York City

Major: World politics; minor in philosophy

First Year Forward Summer Experience: Intern at the Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to immigrant children in New York 

Currently: Awarded a Bristol Fellowship to pursue her project “Women and Poverty: Uncommon Perspectives on an All-Too-Common Struggle.” She’s volunteering and conducting research in Jamaica, Brazil, Ghana, Greece and Thailand.

“I am a first-generation and Higher Education Opportunities Program student. If it weren’t for my experience in First Year Forward, I would have not gained the valuable skills such as how to network or how to send professional follow-up emails. The program taught me to be persistent, confident and open-minded.

“My experience at Safe Passage furthered my interest in law, specifically immigrant law, but it also showed me that I am a hands-on person and cannot sit in an office all day. My college coursework and extracurricular activities taught me the importance of being grounded in my values while maintaining and deploying those values in the midst of organizational change. From here on, I know that my career goal lies in advocacy. The opportunities and experiences Hamilton provided have helped me realize my own privilege in the world, yet opened me to see that there are many more changes to be made. Determined to get involved in ways that would help break the cycle of poverty, I hope to continue educating, encouraging and inspiring young people in my neighborhood to organize for change.”

Michael Nelson '16
A Levitt Center Social Innovation fellow, Michael Nelson ’16 consults with Anke Wessels, director of the Center for Transformative Actions at Cornell University

Michael Nelson ’16

Hometown: Centennial, Colo.

Major: Economics

First Year Forward Summer Experience: Explored the start-up scene in Boulder, Colo., including interning at a tech start-up

Currently: Doing pro-bono strategy and operations work for Youth Service America with Steve Culbertson ’79; in October, joining Deloitte’s federal consulting division 

 “The things that First Year Forward taught me my freshman year gave me the skills and know-how to take initiative and gain great career-related experiences. I honestly can’t distinguish which areas [at Hamilton] helped me to grow and learn the most. The classroom pushed me to think critically, communicate my ideas and solve problems. My extracurricular activities showed me how to connect the dots between what I was learning, what I enjoyed doing and the skills that I still needed to develop. Finally, my interning/startup experiences let me practice all of this with real consequences while making a real impact. [They included interning at Amy Owens Goodfriend ’82’s executive coaching firm and his own social-impact projects.]

“The last month at Hamilton was the only time I felt restless, because I was ready. Today I feel prepared, and I feel confident. Since July 4, Independence Day ironically, I have moved to DC, started a new job, gotten lost in IKEA, called or seen over a dozen Hamilton friends, left my best knife in the sink to rust — and been grateful every day for how exciting, and not terrifying, it feels to make this transition.”

Ramon Villalona ’16
Ramon Villalona ’16

Ramon Villalona ’16

Hometown: South Bronx, New York City

Major: Economics; minor in Chinese

First Year Forward Summer Experience: Intern at Coldwell Banker Bellmarc

Currently: Working at Silicon Valley Bank in the Associate Development Program

“My title [at Coldwell Banker Bellmarc] was property inspection intern, and every day I jumped from the 5th Avenue office near 56th Street to the 14th Street location for real estate, buyer negotiation and sales training. I was the first intern to join and independently learned the patented selection Portfolio software, which I then had to train a team of four other interns to use throughout the summer.

“The experience gave me exposure within the financial industry, real estate specifically, but it also did much more. I engaged directly with the CEO and CFO on a daily basis; that is, I learned what it means to add value to a team and an organization. However, I gained the most through intangibles. The leadership qualities I developed, an understanding of how corporations and hierarchies work, and the analytical skills I developed helped me down the line at Citigroup and as president of two organizations at Hamilton my senior year [Brothers Organization and Finance Club].


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