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First Generation Alumni Group Launches Relief Grant Program for Harvard Undergraduates

A pedestrian walks through Harvard Yard in front of Sever Hall on a November morning.
A pedestrian walks through Harvard Yard in front of Sever Hall on a November morning. By Allison G. Lee
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

The First Generation Harvard Alumni board will distribute $500 relief grants to over a hundred first-generation, low-income undergraduates after an application review process, the organization announced this week.

After the College mandated that undergraduates evacuate campus last month to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many FGLI students expressed anxieties over steep costs associated with storage and transport home, unearned income from obsolete on-campus jobs, and lost food and housing.

Just days after the College’s initial announcement, FGHA’s board held an emergency meeting to brainstorm methods to support financially burdened students.

The group launched a GoFundMe page soliciting donations to finance the immediate costs of students’ storage, shipping, and transportation, raising $65,000 in 11 days, according to FGHA board member Viviann Anguiano.

FGHA President Daniel “Dan” Lobo ’14 said the donations through the GoFundMe page “ran the gamut” both in size and source.

“We had awards ranging in size or donations ranging in size from $10 to like $5,000,” Lobo said. “Alumni of all different means gave, alumni from all different regions of the world gave, alumni from all different class years gave. It was really just such a collective community effort that we're really proud of.”

FGHA announced the opportunity fund on their Twitter on April 4 and invited students to apply over the following seven days.

Since most students have now successfully covered the immediate costs of transportation home and storage, Anguiano said she expects students will use the opportunity fund to foot the costs of food, rent, laptops, and internet connection.

“First gen-low income students are going to be greatly impacted by this crisis far beyond just this month or the next few weeks,” she added.

Lobo said FGHA collaborated with PRIMUS, a group for FGLI undergraduates, as well as First-Year Retreat and Experience, a pre-orientation program for incoming FGLI freshmen, to publicize the fund. The group also solicited applicants through its alumni mentor program.

The application asked for key indicators that act as “proxies” for economic need, according to Anguiano. The metrics included students’ financial aid status and their parents’ education histories. The form also featured a “narrative” section that asked applicants to detail how the coronavirus crisis has affected their family life.

Anguiano added that the opportunity fund’s evaluation rubric also includes an “equity weighting” that considers additional factors such as race, gender, and other identity markers of “historically marginalized” students.

“We're taking a comprehensive review of the application and we're trying to be thoughtful about ensuring that this money gets to students who absolutely need it the most,” she said. “And I think one thing that I was really hoping that this scholarship opportunity would be based on is equity.”

Anguiano said nearly 300 students ultimately applied to receive a grant by Saturday when the form closed. She added that FGHA expects to allocate the funds to students within the next two weeks after reviewing the applications.

Lobo said he anticipates the review process will present challenges because the relief fund is not large enough to accommodate all applicants.

“We're a volunteer board. We're not admissions people. This is not what we're used to doing,” Lobo said. “These are very heartbreaking stories, and we're very much not looking forward to a situation where we have to say no to the stories that we're seeing.”

“We are committed to going out and raising more funds to be able to meet full student need,” he added.

Nicholas T. “Nick” Wyville ’20, a senior who applied to the fund, said the $500 grant would serve as a “safety net” for him and his fellow FGLI students seeking long-term employment in a hostile job market.

“I, as well as other friends, are thinking about how to keep maintaining monthly payments on our credit card,” Wyville said. “People are worried about making a deposit on apartments when we start working hopefully in a few months.”

Lobo said FGHA has engaged a “two-pronged strategy” to respond to Harvard’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first prong is to provide “immediate relief” to students in need, and the second is “a longer-term advocacy effort” urging administrators to foreground the interests of vulnerable students.

University spokesperson Christopher M. Hennessy wrote on behalf of the Office for Alumni Affairs and Development that philanthropy like FGHA’s provides “critical support” for Harvard’s mission.

Charlene S. Kim, director of the Harvard Office of Admissions and Financial Aid’s First Generation Program, wrote in an email that the College has also been working to support FGLI undergraduates.

“In our conversations with the FGHA board about their fund, and about helping our FGLI students more broadly, they were very heartened to learn that students have been receiving a large amount of financial support from the College during this unprecedented time,” she wrote.

Kim wrote that the College has prorated student room and board and maintained financial aid levels. Harvard has also increased the grant aid of students on financial aid to replace half of the spring semester’s term-time work expectation, resulting in an additional $875 of scholarship funding for the semester. Students applying for reimbursement of their travel expenses to return home last month can cover those costs with grant aid from the financial aid office.

Kim added that the College has been pleased to witness alumni mobilizing on behalf of current students.

“COVID-19 has brought both troubling health and socioeconomic consequences, but it has been heartening to see support for our FGLI students coming from this group of alumni, and from across the Harvard community,” she wrote.

Wyville said he was grateful to FGHA and the alumni who donated to the opportunity fund. He added that he hoped their mobilization would inspire his peers to similarly support future undergraduates.

“I think it also sets the groundwork for a lot of current students to also know that, when the time comes, that we will also step up to help students,” Wyville said.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at juliet.isselbacher@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at amanda.su@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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