Students who are the first to go to college in their families shared their experiences with fellow students and administrators in a community conversation Thursday, exchanging ideas on how the College can better help “first-gen” students navigate challenges they might face at Harvard.
The event was organized by the First Generation Student Union, a student organization that Harvard officially recognized last November. According to the group’s president Jasmine A. Fernandez ’16, the club’s missions include creating a supportive community for first-generation students, fostering a “first-gen” identity, and advocating for more institutional support.
Administrators, including Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, and Elm Yard Dean Jasmine M. Waddell, also participated in the discussion.
Waddell opened the discussion by saying that she knows of at least 36 different initiatives happening around the University that aim to support first-generation students, but there needs to be more communication and coordination between groups.
Undergraduates talked about the unique challenges and frustrations they have faced as first-generation students at an elite institution, especially the hefty monetary costs incurred by certain experiences or activities. Though the event was open to the College, The Crimson granted anonymity to several of the attendees, who requested that their names not be used given the sensitive nature of the topic.
“I have not been to networking events because I don’t have the clothes, and I don’t have the money to buy them,” said one junior, adding that other colleges have funds that enable students to afford business formal clothing.
“There are some classes that I can’t take because of the cost of the coursepacks…. It’s ironic that I took a class on the inequity in education whose coursepack cost more than $100,” said one sophomore.
A senior pointed out that, according to some studies, lower-income students are less comfortable speaking with adults in general, which can pose a challenge when they try to reach out to professors and staff members for support.
Students also mentioned times when they were confused or frustrated by Harvard’s financial aid system.
“We are expected to work over the summer, which limits what I can do in the summer… I don’t have the same opportunities as my peers who can study abroad or do an internship,” said a second junior.
A third junior said that parents who do not speak English can be confused by the communications sent out by the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, and that more bilingual resources should be available for families.
After listening to students’ concerns, Khurana said that the difficulties presented get in the way of achieving the mission of the College, where he believes every student should have the conditions to flourish.
“There is a lot of taken-for-grantedness that exists in this institution in terms of backgrounds, resources and capacities,” Khurana said. “We need to be aware that unexamined assumptions can be experienced differently by different people with different backgrounds.”
Dingman emphasized that a lot things can be done by the various departments to better support first-generation students and that coordination is crucial.
“I feel very confident that we can make it work,” Dingman said.
—Staff Writer Zara Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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