Faculty Discuss Experiences as First-Generation Students

Anna Y Zhong

Alexandra Shields (Harvard Medical School), Tommie Shelby (African and African American Studies and Philosophy), and Matthew Nock (Psychology) reminisce on embarrassing, yet lonely, moments as first generation college students when they were freshmen. The FDO and faculty members created this panel to discuss new methods of helping first generation freshmen settle into college.

Four faculty members who themselves were first-generation college students gathered in Boylston Hall Thursday to offer advice to current Harvard students. The event, sponsored by the Freshman Dean’s Office, covered topics including adjusting to freshman year and the stigma that first-generation college students face.

Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds introduced the panelists and the moderator, Anya Bernstein Bassett, the social studies director of undergraduate studies.

“This may be the first of many conversations we can have about this,” Hammonds said.

Tommie Shelby, a professor of philosophy and African and African American studies, said that “getting into college was a pretty big shock.”

“There was a language that I did not speak and they all spoke,” said Alexandra Shields, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “There were these little cultural references that everyone seemed to know and I had no idea what they were saying.”


Sue Brown, the resident dean of Elm Yard, echoed her colleagues’ sense of alienation.

“I was missing the map that a lot of my classmates had,” she said.

The panelists also offered advice to first-generation students.

“Put yourself out there,” said Matthew K. Nock, a psychology professor.

Shields encouraged students to look for role models.

“Extend yourself,” she said, mentioning that a close relationship with a professor “made a huge difference” for her.

Shields also addressed the stigma against first-generation students.

“There’s a kind of hidden assumption that maybe you’re not as smart,” she said.

Nock advised that “the best way to fight it is to just do the best you can.”

“It’s a stigma because we buy into the stigma,” said Brown. “I’m proud of the fact that I was the first [to attend college].”

Kevin B. Jennings ’85, the founder of the shared interest group First Generation Harvard Alumni and a former assistant deputy secretary of education for the Obama administration, said the small attendance at the event surprised him.

“I was a little disappointed more students didn’t come,” he said.

Despite this, Jennings added that “these kinds of things wouldn’t happen 30 years ago.”

Khadijah Williams ’13 said that the event gave her a “sense of pride” at having such visible role models.

“Being a first-generation student kind of colors your experience at a place like Harvard,” she said.