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Parents and family members of 12 first-generation College students flew into Cambridge on Harvard’s dime this Junior Parents Weekend to record interviews with their children. These recordings will soon be made available in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
A collaboration between the Bureau of Study Counsel and StoryCorps, a national oral history organization, the project was born out of a desire to share and preserve the experiences of Harvard’s first-generation students, according to BSC Associate Director Sheila M. Reindl.
“For first-generation to college students, there’s such a needed interest in knowing more about that experience, and we really wanted to make a place to invite, hear, preserve, and share those stories,” Reindl said.
The 12 undergraduates who participated were each allowed to fly in one parent, family member, or teacher, whose travel and living expenses were subsidized by the College and a private donor.
For Samwel M. Emmanuel ’17, the opportunity to bring his mother all the way from Tanzania was too good to pass up.
“It was a great weekend because I spent all of it with my mom, whom I hadn’t seen for over two years,” Emmanuel said. “For my mom, it was her first time ever out of the country.”
After settling in, parents and family members sat down at the BSC with their students to talk about both generations’ educational experiences. For some participants, the exchange was an intense one.
“I got really emotional because we talked about everything we’d been through; my mom talking about what it was like growing up, and me talking about everything I’ve been through at Harvard,” Gabby D. Aguirre ’17 said. “It felt relieving—it felt like therapy.”
For participants like Selena S. Rincon ’17, the interview, conducted as a conversation between parent and child, revealed parts of their lives that she and her mother didn’t know about each other.
“It was a great opportunity to talk to my mom about a lot of things that I hadn’t gotten to talk to her about,” Rincon said. “It really started a conversation with my mom that needed to happen.”
According to Rincon, she and her mother spoke in depth for the first time about the challenges Rincon has faced as a first-generation student.
“I don’t want to tell my mom, oh yeah, I’m having a rough day today,” Rincon said. “Some of these things are difficult to handle because I don’t want her to worry.”
William A. Greenlaw ’17 said the interview offered him an opportunity to learn more about his father, who was rejected from a college and ended up working at a steel mill instead.
“My father expressed a little bit of regret about that during the interview,” Greenlaw said. “It was very illuminating to finally understand why he’s been so encouraging; perhaps if he’d been encouraged more, or had been given advice on how to handle failure early on, then maybe things would have been much different.”
Many participants who were interviewed said they hoped their experiences, shared through StoryCorps and the BSC, could offer future first-generation students guidance and stories with which they may identify.
“I really just hope that if people hear the conversation, they can connect with it and know that they’re not alone in struggling,” Aguirre said.
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