One day several weeks ago, as he was waiting to hear back from fellowship applications, Jesse G. Sanchez ’14 received a phone call from his hometown in City Heights, San Diego. It was his mother. “Jesse, something came in the mail for you,” she said in Spanish. “But I don’t know what it is—what’s Fulbright?”
Sanchez credits his mother, who was only able to attain a third-grade education before emigrating to the United States, with much of his success in life. But as a first-generation student at Harvard, he has struggled at times to reconcile home and school environments whose very vocabularies differ.
“It creates a sense of isolation wherever they are,” he says of first-generation students, particularly those who are among the only students from their community to have gone to college. When Sanchez returns home for vacation, it can be difficult to connect with or even find time to see old friends, many of whom have been working full-time since high school or have children and families to support. He finds it easier to relate to fellow alumni of Reality Changers, a non-profit that has provided academic support, financial assistance and leadership training to him and other potential first-generation college students.
Just getting to Harvard, of course, presents an even greater challenge to these students, who must navigate applications, fee waivers, and recommendation letters without help or experience from their parents, at high schools with usually overworked and often skeptical counselors. Over the past decade in particular, Harvard has made a concerted effort to ease this process, reaching out to prospective low-income and minority students (for whom there tends to be overlap with first-generation status) through initiatives like the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative and the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program.
But for many, the true challenges begin only with entrance through Widener Gate on the first day of freshman year. The past year has seen efforts by students and alumni alike to bridge a possible disconnect between administrative enthusiasm to attract first-generation students, and weaker support and outreach once they arrive on campus. For the students, part of this process has included the development of a “first-gen” identity as something to be embraced.
Freshman year can be overwhelming for many Harvard students. “When you first arrive, everyone’s lost,” says Nelida Garcia ’14, a cheerful, effervescent Chicago native and daughter of Mexican immigrants. “That experience of feeling a little bit out of it—it’s pretty universal.” But the transition to college is intensified for students who are the first in their family to enter college at all, much less one of the country’s most selective. For these students, figuring out how to approach a professor in class, or what to say to a professor in office hours, or even how to interact with peers whose experiences and families are vastly different from their own, is far from straightforward.
Garcia recalls talking with a classmate her freshman fall about their mutual struggles with Expos 20. The classmate confided that he had given one of his papers to his mother to look over. She was taken aback: “That’s something I never could think of doing.” The inability to rely on their parents for paper critiques or career support, for example, can be a major facet of the first-generation student experience. But the differences can also be more subtle. Non-first-gen students, according to Garcia, arrive at college equipped with a “toolkit” for interacting with others more confidently.
“They have this better ability to maneuver different areas,” she says, from office hours to faculty dinners, “because it’s more familiar to them.” Yet for many first-generation students, these social cues have to be learned on the ground. While their peers can often serve as a means of support for this process, other Harvard students—particularly in the early college years—can also cause further isolation. Daniel M. Lobo ’14 says that he was astounded, upon arriving at Harvard, by the sheer concentration of wealth on campus. He’d never been exposed to anything like it before.
“It was hard at the beginning just to figure out what to talk to people about,” he says. “Our experiences were—are—so different, and I didn’t really know how to reconcile those differences.” Eventually, he made friends who helped him navigate through the recruiting process, as he gradually realized that the only careers (rather than jobs) he had really learned about—medicine, from his family doctor, or education, from his high school teachers—were far from his only options.
Many students recognize that other resources do exist at Harvard for students overwhelmed with the academic and social requirements of Harvard undergraduate life. Lobo, for instance, turned to his freshman advisor, a counselor at the Bureau of Study Counsel responsible for advising many first-gen students, for advice and support during his first year. PAFs, freshman proctors, and the Bureau of Study Counsel all provide counseling or workshops to ease the transition into Harvard, while HFAI publishes a 71-page booklet entitled Shoestring Strategies for Life @ Harvard directed towards students from lower-income backgrounds. But this year was the first that PAF training included a module specifically directed toward the needs of first-gen students. For some students, however, the availability of resources has not been matched by outreach alerting them to the existence of such resources.
“Harvard has a lot of institutional resources in place to support students as they transition to college,” says Sanchez. “But from my experience, there were very few people that could connect with my personal experience in terms of growing up below the US poverty line, growing up in areas where murder and drugs were pretty common.”
“[Existing resources] did provide a lot of support that I definitely benefited from,” he goes on, “but it was sometimes challenging to connect holistically and feel a real sense of empathy, in terms of having someone say, ‘I know what that’s like. I went through it, too.’”
Sometimes, even reaching out can be a challenge. “The problem was, I didn’t know what was appropriate to ask,” says Viet D. Tran ’16, who grew up in a largely immigrant community in Texas. “At home I took care of everything. I didn’t have my own problems—I had other people’s problems.”
He continues, “It’s this challenge of figuring out: What do I classify as a problem?”
In some ways, these challenges for first-generation students at Harvard have not changed significantly over the past several decades. When Kevin B. Jennings ’85 arrived on campus, he felt similarly isolated and alone. In addition, he bore the burden of what he considered to be a moral judgment. “When I was at Harvard there was a really deep sense of shame around being first-generation,” he says. “There was a sense that if your family was poor, it was somehow their fault.”
But what has changed, he thinks, is a growing sense of consciousness concerning first-generation identity. “The very term ‘first-generation’ didn’t even exist five years ago,” he says. Part of this growing self-consciousness has taken place thanks to Jennings’s own efforts. As a former member of the Alumni Association’s board of directors, Jennings was part of a working group which looked at the Office of Career Services. He realized that the confusion and uncertainty he had felt in searching for a career had not gone away for current first-gens. “The average first-generation student doesn’t have parents who work in investment banking or consulting, or any of those fields,” Jennings says. “The feeling of not understanding the universe of Harvard or understanding what I was supposed to do after Harvard—I was seeing those things occur again.”
His experience ultimately led to the creation, two years ago, of the First Generation Alumni Mentorship Program, which pairs incoming freshmen with first-generation alumni for mentorship and advising. Last year, according to Jennings, about 15 percent of the incoming class was first-generation; 130 students, or about 8 percent, applied to be paired with 103 alumni volunteers.
Jennings understands this program as one that fills a gap between Harvard’s outreach initiatives to prospective applicants, and provides support to students once they arrive at Harvard. HFAI and UMRP are both focused on attracting low-income, minority, and first-generation students to Harvard—not on supporting current students on campus. “I don’t think we have done everything we could to make sure people feel supported and included once they get here, and feel like they can succeed,” Jennings says.
Or, as Garcia puts it, “If you admit students that are highly qualified but who might not have a support system in place once they arrive, it puts them at a disadvantage from the start.”
A similar sentiment prompted the establishment of the Harvard College First Generation Student Union, which became an official student organization last fall. Lobo, who was inspired to start the organization after attending a panel with first-generation faculty members several years ago, sees the group as having several aspects to its mission. The first is to provide first-generation students—freshmen in particular—with certain resources, or to direct them to resources that already exist. “There’s an opportunity to reduce the amount of time it takes for first-gen students to transition,” he says. While many of Harvard’s resources can be fruitfully directed toward challenges facing first-gen students, these resources require proctors, academic advisers and PAFs to be aware of them and willing to communicate their importance. Lobo and others see the Student Union as filling in the gaps when such communication, for a variety of reasons, just doesn’t take place.
More generally, the group is also committed to building a sense of first-gen identity. While there is some overlap between first-gen students and ethnic or cultural groups on campus, the lack of any visual cues means that it’s more difficult for first-gen students to recognize and identify each other. For Jennings, who is openly gay, this process has some parallels with the process of “coming out,” of finding pride rather than shame in a kind of identity that is often not immediately evident.
“We want to build a community where people are advertising their identity with pride and connecting with others based on their identity,” says Lobo. “And feeling empowered about it.”
Finally, though, the group plans to advocate for more institutional commitment to supporting first-generation students; according to Lobo, “recognizing that a lot of our peer institutions have a lot more resources and programming.” When Lobo was accepted to Georgetown, for instance, he was also admitted into a program called Community Scholars, which brings first-gen students to campus about a month before the beginning of the semester. It includes skills-building workshops, such as panels on how to talk to professors, and strives to build a community for the students that take part. “Can we mimic this program?” asks Lobo. “It’s something we should at least be discussing.”
Others suggest room for improvement in the establishment of a first-generation student center, similar to the Women’s Center in the basement of Canaday. Currently, Garcia says, “people tend to stick to people who they feel are from similar backgrounds because there aren’t any spaces where they feel comfortable enough.” For Garcia, such a center would serve not to isolate the first-gen students from the broader community, but rather to provide both a space for empowerment and the opportunity to educate the student body about the first-gen experience. “I think it would benefit the entire community,” she says.
For Jennings, possible changes might also include developing more targeted, specific training to educate freshmen proctors on the first-gen experience, as well as ensuring that existing programs like OCS are “first-generation inclusive.”
Before starting to advocate more actively for first-generation issues, Lobo says that he thought no one on higher administrative levels was talking about the challenges facing students like him. “I realized quickly that I was wrong, that these conversations have been taking place,” he says. “There just hasn’t been much action.”
He continues, “That tells me that the administration realizes that there’s an opportunity for improvement with the first-gen experience here. But I think they’ve realized that the transition is not happening as quickly as it could.”
Programs like the First Generation Student Union and Alumni Mentorship Program will perhaps, then, provide a model for more sustained administrative changes. For Jennings, at least, the prospects are bright. “The 2013-2014 school year is going to go down,” he claims, “as the turning point for first-generation students at Harvard.”