NEW YORK TIMES: First-Generation Students Unite

Career College Central Summary:

  • Ana Barros grew up in a two-family house built by Habitat for Humanity, hard by the boarded-up buildings and vacant lots of Newark. Neither parent attended college, but she was a star student. With a 2200 on her SATs, she expected to fit in at Harvard.
  • Yet here she was at a lecture for a sociology course called, paradoxically, “Poverty in America,” as a classmate opened her laptop and planned a multicountry spring break trip to Europe. (Ms. Barros can’t afford textbooks; she borrows from the library.) On the sidewalks of Cambridge, students brush past her in their $700 Canada Goose parkas and $1,000 Moncler puffer jackets. (Ms. Barros saved up for two years for good boots.) On an elite campus, income inequality can be in your face.
  • A professor once described how hardships become inscribed on one’s body, and Ms. Barros thought of her father, a janitor at a home for troubled boys, and the wrinkles carved in his face from worrying about money and her mother’s health. Majoring in sociology, she says, “has made me hyperaware of class differences here.”
  • Weary of trying to pass as middle class, Ms. Barros decided to “come out,” borrowing the phrase from the gay community. She joined and now leads the two-year-old Harvard College First Generation Student Union, which has 300 on its email list. “This is a movement,” she said. “We are not ashamed of taking on this identity.”
  • On the nation’s most prestigious campuses, first-generation-in-college students like Ms. Barros are organizing, speaking up about who they are and what’s needed to make their path to a degree less fraught. There’s the Hidden Minority Council at Princeton and the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership at Yale and Columbia. Lynda Lopez started the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance after a Facebook page she created, “UChicago Class Confessions,” filled with frank exchanges within minutes.
  • And in February, 1vyG, a student group formed last spring at Brown, hosted the first Inter-Ivy First Generation Student Network Conference. Some 250 students came to the snowbound Rhode Island campus from as far away as Stanford and Pomona College. The conference had the feel of a giddy meet-up for people unaccustomed to seeing others like them. They crashed on dorm room floors and wore cherry red conference T-shirts. Speakers included the president of Brown, a founder of the nonprofit QuestBridge, and the executive director of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher college campaign. Teach for America, the investment firm Bridgewater Associates and Google were sponsors.
  • Over three days, the conference unfolded as part edification (students left a talk on socioeconomics cheering “It’s not our fault!”), part sharing and part empowerment. Participants traced obstacles, from juggling multiple jobs to frustrations when parents disapproved of majors they didn’t understand.
  • Rudy Torres, a Brown junior from East Los Angeles, told of arriving at a welcome reception for admitted students at a Beverly Hills mansion only to have the host greet his father, a high school dropout, with a question: “Where did you go to undergrad?” The guests were white and the waiters, like his family, Mexican. “It was very uncomfortable,” he said.
  • The conference offered mostly an upbeat take on the first-gen identity, a new message for many. Hung Pham, who graduates from Yale in May with a B.A. in art history, attended a session on casting adversity on your résumé as a skill-building asset. He declared it “shocking.”
  • “It’s always been about focusing on deficits,” he said. “How can I be better? How can I catch up?” In his first art history class, the professor had gone around class asking each student to name a favorite Renaissance painter. He hadn’t had any.

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