We are proud alumnae of Harvard College—one fourth-generation and white, one first-generation and African American. We took different routes to Harvard, but each of us experienced class, race, and financial struggles. Now, as educators who devote our lives to reaching out to underprivileged communities, we share a common concern.
Many students, as we well know, make it out of these extraordinary environments—some earlier, thanks to scholarships, to prep schools, or elite summer programs and participation in organizations such as Upward Bound and MESA, and some later, through admission to top colleges, including Harvard. We applaud Harvard for offering unprecedented financial support to low-income students, helping many first-generation college students, including those from at-risk communities. However, as evidenced by significant research and a recent article in the Boston Globe, the inclination to believe that providing access and financial assistance is enough is both wrong and dangerous. One of us broached this issue with President Drew G. Faust when she visited Los Angeles last year. Her response implied that financial assistance and current programs were all that these students needed.
We believe that by opening the door to these students, Harvard has taken on an obligation to do much more.
Existing programs in financial aid, academic support, and counseling certainly help individual students to adapt but are not sufficient to help develop a safe community for these first-generation college goers. The extraordinary essence that has enabled these students to thrive before Harvard will not readily transfer to their newly privileged roles as Harvard students without a comprehensive program to help them identify and navigate the transparent privileges and outsider status that confront them everyday.
They need much more support if we want them to make the most of their Harvard experiences, which will differ in multiple ways from those of their peers. These students must be invited to join communities where others share their goals and their experiences. We want to hold on to the students’ hearts and minds, to enable them to thrive rather than merely survive in this wonderful community. Other universities—including University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Boston College—recognize the challenges these students encounter. Rather than leaving the students to sink or swim, they provide a host of options similar to the support system that we recommend Harvard put in place. Students who go through these programs link them to their ability to stay in college and to thrive as students navigating several complex worlds.
With these goals in mind, and recognizing the challenges, we issue the following call to action to President Faust, who despite these tough economic times admirably remains steadfastly committed to financial aid outreach to students from low-income families.
The Call to Action:
1. Task force and office: Harvard should create a task force and a professionally staffed office for supporting underrepresented students at Harvard. This will include first-generation college goers who are Harvard professors, low-income students, experts on student retention, and other interested and experienced alumni and community members.
2. Summer bridge programs: Dozens of universities across the country offer these two-to-four week programs for underrepresented students. We recommend Harvard offer one for all students receiving significant financial aid packages and other first-generation students. This transition program would offer classes on study skills and ways of navigating Harvard—from receiving financial aid to communicating with professors to balancing work and school. The program would also offer socialization conversations and peer support provided by students from underprivileged backgrounds. Each following year, these students would return for shorter programs that explore traversing several worlds, finding work after college, and ways to give back to their communities.
3. Freshman orientation workshops: Freshman orientation is a wonderful entrée to the exciting world of ideas and an opportunity not only to warm up one’s intellectual muscles but also to engage with one’s incredibly interesting and diverse peers. Harvard should expand its current orientation programs to encompass a series of workshops on diversity, including socioeconomic diversity, and on being sensitive to the first-generation college-goers in the classroom. Workshop leaders might include high-profile alumni and current students who came from these backgrounds, and testimonials from roommates, teammates, and others they encountered.
4. School-year meetings, forums, and workshops: Throughout the year, students could attend workshops and meetings to continue receiving support. Student groups such as the Harvard Black Student Association and Fuerza Latina could join these programs.
5. Expand academic, peer, and counseling support: Harvard’s Bureau of Study Counsel would expand its wide array of counseling, workshops, discussions groups, and courses to address the needs of first-generation and low-income college goers. It would train its tutors, group leaders, and peer counselors about the unique academic, socio-economic, and institutional challenges the underrepresented students may experience.
6. Website and e-mail outreach: Much like the Financial Aid Office e-mails that help students navigate their finances, Harvard would e-mail students about resources and support and would design a website for underrepresented students. Interested students and alumni would create blogs about their experiences. The site for UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program could serve as a starting point.
7. Campus “Clothes Closet:” The Financial Aid Office would solicit alumni for gift certificates to local retailers that would allow students to purchase winter clothes and other needed clothing for Harvard life.
8. Mentors and outreach: During the school year and summers, Harvard would formally match students with alumni mentors to provide additional guidance on navigating higher education, including early graduate school counseling, career counseling, money management, and other life skills.
9. Giving back: Students will work to help prepare other first-generation and low-income students to reach for the academic stars. Similar students at Princeton developed their own group to prepare students for college. What better role models could future Harvard students have than those who came before them?
In providing this improved support, Harvard will do a service to students who benefit from its financial aid policy that mirrors that generous, visionary initiative. We call on President Faust and the whole Harvard community to place these ideas on the front burner. We ask that alumni and alumnae join this call to action, by helping fund summer programs and donating their time for mentoring programs all around the country. We ask that student leaders and faculty advisors answer this call by joining forces to aid this increasing pool of first-generation and low-income matriculating students, to ease them through the many transitions en route to a Harvard degree.
Let us continue Harvard’s generosity beyond the financial arena, to provide the additional support that will help these students to acclimate more readily to the Harvard environment and make the most of their hard-earned Harvard opportunity.
Rebecca J. Joseph ’85, a former Crimson Executive Arts Editor, is a former inner-city English teacher and current education professor at California State University, Los Angeles, where she trains urban teachers, supports first-generation college goers, and provides workshops on preparing students for college.
Chris C. Goodman ’87 is a professor of law at Pepperdine University, where she mentors students at all academic stages and participates in high school outreach programs in east and south Los Angeles.