Higher Education

First-gen students at elite colleges go from lonely and overwhelmed to empowered and provoking change

Fourth conference of IvyG network is a far cry from the first one

Alfred "Red" Joseph, a senior history and philosophy major, and Lyndsi Burcham, a junior psychology major, stand outside Irvine Auditorium before the opening ceremony of the fourth annual 1vyG Conference at Penn, holding the SWAG given to attendees bearing theme "Focusing on the Future."

Alfred “Red” Joseph, a senior history and philosophy major, and Lyndsi Burcham, a junior psychology major, stand outside Irvine Auditorium before the opening ceremony of the fourth annual 1vyG Conference at Penn, holding the SWAG given to attendees bearing theme “Focusing on the Future.”

In February 2015, I arrived on a snowy Brown University campus for the first 1vyG conference. 1vyG is shorthand for inter-Ivy first-generation college student network. It was born of late night talk among three students who felt, as one put it, that Brown “didn’t expect us, people like us, to be here.”

They had been admitted, but felt unguided and unsupported.

That conference had the giddy vibe of a family reunion. Some 250 students shared stories. They cried, hugged and flirted. They danced to a mariachi band and crashed on dorm floors. Mostly, they reveled in the heart-skipping discovery of others like themselves.

The event highlighted the gritty narrative of underprivileged strivers on Ivy League campuses. We got tales of bright impoverished kids, sons and daughters of bus drivers and cooks, welcomed into chandeliered halls of learning without winter coats or the means to travel home for Thanksgiving. Their dire finances contrasted with those of peers in designer clothes jetting to the Caribbean for spring break.

Fast forward to now. As I navigated keynote talks, lunch discussions and hallway buzz at the fourth annual 1vyG at the University of Pennsylvania on a recent Saturday morning, I found something new. Not only were there 559 attendees, but, notably, a whopping 102 of them were campus administrators.

First generation low-income students are no longer the outsiders they once were.

On elite campuses, they are now a critical mass – 17 percent of freshman at Yale and Princeton. At Penn, the university’s president, Amy Gutmann, a first gen herself, made the point, in her remarks in Irvine Auditorium, that when she became president in 2004, one in 20 students were first generation low-income, or FGLI (at Penn it’s said “figly”). They are now one in eight. More than 25 percent of Penn freshman are first-gen, high-financial-need or both.

This does not mean that being underprivileged on the nation’s wealthiest campuses is easy. It’s not. Nor does it mean that every campus is woke.

But as a group, low-income first gens have established a beachhead. They have claimed real estate (at Brown and Penn, literal centers) and are methodically labeling the barriers they wish to dismantle. As a group last year, they got top colleges to waive application fees without making students detail family hardships, which they found humiliating. Next up: Persuade elite colleges to eliminate legacy admissions.

The conference featured three sub-themes (leadership, institutional change and post-grad success), several keynotes, 15 workshops and separate programming for current students, alumni and administrators. Administrators tackled 19 different discussion topics, from dining and housing to parent communication, financial aid and career help. A student pressed each group for concrete goals. Said David Thai, a student conference organizer who sought answers from his group on overcoming institutional bureaucracy: “My challenge to them is, ‘How do you break a window?’”

Related: Five reasons colleges can enroll more low-income students

The conference was organized by Penn First, a student group at Penn for first generation and low-income students.

The conference was organized by Penn First, a student group at Penn for first generation and low-income students.

The groups came up with loads of granular ideas, such as getting professors to put sources of free printing on their syllabi, giving financial aid guidance that could carry into adulthood (how to make a down payment on a house) and finding donors for help with unsexy necessities like broken eyeglasses or dental insurance.

That level of detail (not present three years ago) is the byproduct of something new: Campuses are hiring administrators who were low-income first gens themselves. It has brought urgency to getting results. It’s why Rochelle Jackson-Smarr, who works in the Office of Engagement Initiatives at Cornell, stood up and insisted that colleagues “figure out how we hold each other accountable in this room, that we are not just high-fiving.”

Changing how administrators think – and the way colleges operate – seems key. What does that look like?

For one thing, some have begun to consider the eyes through which students and families view the elite college experience, flipping the mindset away from “no one expects people like us to be here.” Yale next fall will cover hospitalization insurance ($2,332 a year) for low-income students. Just because a university makes a huge grant for tuition, room and board, doesn’t make other things affordable.

Can universities really consider and address a myriad of such separate expenses? To be fair, the argument goes , they must. College is not just classes. Mindset matters, because at these elite institutions, most students arrive with networks of support that they don’t – and cannot, by virtue of their status – even perceive. The first-gen low-income movement is forcing an enumeration of those privileges.

This time of year, for example, is when many students at elite colleges e-mail parents and friends of parents to track down summer internships. Paid is ideal; but unpaid is fine (parents will pay for an apartment and living expenses). They expect to do this. It’s resume-building and it helps your kid figure out his or her career interests. It’s an investment.

If you can afford it. Which is why the University of Chicago’s hiring of Nelida Garcia, assistant director of student preparation, was a power move. Ms. Garcia, a co-founder of the Harvard College First Generation Student Union as an undergrad there, “gets it.” Chicago now offers every low-income scholarship recipient an internship after freshman year (plus up to $4,000 to cover it). Drawing on her own experience, Garcia also made a literal paper “road map” to help students chart their first year; she’s planning maps for second- and third-year students, too.

Related: New supports for first-gen students: Helpful or a drop in the bucket?

For years, elite colleges thought the only barrier to coming was money. They didn’t notice the culture of their campuses and the assumptions about “what everybody does” and “what everybody has.” The first-generation low-income movement leaders have done them a favor by pointing out the privilege in plain sight.

In so doing, they are changing the DNA of those institutions, preparing them to remain relevant. To anyone who wonders who the leaders will be in government, law, medicine, tech, finance, education – pick your field of influence – 20 or 30 years from now, it won’t be the timid, the comfortable or the compliant. Coming times will reward those who can manage conflicting ideas, cobble solutions and take risks, who see past surface offerings to envision unorthodox networks.

Much remains day-to-day difficult. But low-income first gens are now looking at the horizon. Expect them to be in power circles, exerting their values and – if colleges play it right – driving alumni support when they gain life success.

At the 1vyG event, student organizers in office attire had clearly gotten the confidence memo. There were still heart-rending stories. Pain and hardship are still part of the identity. But the students are shifting their sights. At check-in, attendees got a long-sleeved navy T-shirt and a maroon bag, each printed with the 1vyG logo, the Philadelphia skyline and the conference theme, “Focusing on the Future.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

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Laura Pappano

Laura Pappano is an education journalist who also writes about gender and sport. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Education Life… See Archive

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Golly Gee! I was a first generation at Brown in 1961. How did I make it all by myself. The Greyhound bus was my transport from Chicago - visited with a friend at Thanksgiving. Times have certainly changed.

- from Anne White, Mar 19, 2018