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Columns

Biting the Hand That Feeds Us

Boston: Education’s Capital City

Students gather in Harvard Yard for the 2022 National First-Generation College Celebration Day as part of the first annual Harvard First-Generation, Low-Income Visibility Week
Students gather in Harvard Yard for the 2022 National First-Generation College Celebration Day as part of the first annual Harvard First-Generation, Low-Income Visibility Week By Truong L. Nguyen
By Joseph W. Hernandez, Crimson Opinion Writer
Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Government and Sociology in Adams House. His column, “Boston: Education’s Capital City,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

“I’m sorry your free Harvard education isn’t perfect. Are you even grateful at all?”

Something along those lines is, by far, the most common response I have received to being a low-income student on full financial aid that openly criticizes the University.

Trust me, I’m plenty grateful for the opportunities I have here. If it weren’t for the full financial aid Harvard provides to students like me, I would likely be transferring into my first year at another university after two years spent at my local community college in order to cut costs or drowning in debt at another institution.

I always saw education as my way past the financial concerns that plague working-class families like mine. For most of my life, schools like Harvard were nothing but a pipe dream; no matter how well I did in a public school classroom, they would always be out of reach.

Yet here I am.

I am one of the disproportionately few public school students in this country who can say I’ve seen firsthand just how life changing the education system can be. There’s no denying that things could be a lot worse for me — I can see that in my own community. I would have to be woefully ignorant not to feel lucky.

But unfortunately, one good experience doesn’t constitute a functional education system. Being “the one who made it” doesn’t mean I should turn a blind eye to every decision Harvard makes and act as if there’s no room for improvement.

The One Who Made It

I am frustratingly well aware that I am living the supposed “American dream.” I am even more painfully aware that, among kids growing up in similar circumstances to me, my case was the exception, not the rule.

No matter what my parents did, given our socioeconomic status, my ‘success’ could not have been possible without a degree of community support usually reserved for families in a higher tax bracket.

Students gather in Memorial Church for the inagural FGLI welcoming ceremony in 2022.
Students gather in Memorial Church for the inagural FGLI welcoming ceremony in 2022. By Dekyi T. Tsotsong

Despite spending much of my education in understaffed, underfunded public schools before stepping foot in a Harvard classroom, I never felt left behind. Because of the exceptional support of community programs such as subsidized child care programs, schools with high parental involvement, and teachers that helped me access resources outside the school itself, I have been given opportunities I could never have imagined.

If even a single one of these stars hadn’t aligned perfectly, I likely wouldn’t be able to end up here writing this column.

This is a Cinderella story that extends beyond college. Not many undergraduates at Harvard come from a low-income background; instead, nearly 70 percent of Harvard’s undergraduates come from the top 20 percent of American household incomes.

So though Harvard ranks in the 7th percentile of colleges for socioeconomic mobility overall, when holding income constant, we see the true impact that graduating Harvard has for its low-income students. Among students who enter the College in the bottom 20 percent of incomes, approximately 40 percent later moved to the top 20 percent of household incomes. On this metric, Harvard is near the 98th percentile for socioeconomic mobility.

The combination of low admission rates and exemplary future outcomes means that being “the one who made it” isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Rather, this status comes with the painful awareness that we are often the sole people from our communities with anything resembling a real shot at socioeconomic mobility.

The image of “the one who made it” — the American dream personified — exists only so long as every other member of their community does not, in fact, ‘make it.’

That’s not a dream; that’s a nightmare.

Biting Back

Students like myself are not so ungrateful that we “bite the hand that feeds us,” completely unaware of our personal circumstances. We are simply young people who want more from and for our communities.

“I’m very grateful that I’m here. I love Harvard and I love being here, but my love for this place does not take away from the fact that I want to make it better for other first-gen students,” student activist Laila A. Nasher ’25 said.

Nasher said that growing up in Detroit’s faulty school system — one without clean air or water, and where 30 out of 33 teachers at her public high school were permanent substitutes — there was no choice but to be involved in education advocacy work.

“I realized that I didn’t have teachers. I realized that what I accepted in my school as ‘normal’ was actually not normal. The only way to do something about it was to organize. I didn’t have a choice to opt into that. It was, you either want to do something about this, or you accept it. And accepting it, for me, was not an option,” Nasher said.

When Nasher arrived on campus and quickly found that here, too, things needed to change, she wasn’t afraid to speak up.

“If you were accepted because you were outspoken in some capacity, why would you then change that, when that is literally the reason why you were accepted?” she said.

Amari M. Butler ’25, a student activist and co-founder of the African and African American Resistance Organization, has also frequently spoken up on campus.

Butler further acknowledged the repercussions of such speech — she expects rebuke.

“If our activism is truly actually posing a threat to those systems that have repressed us and suppressed us for generations, then it would be met with pushback, of course, just by the nature of that system’s desire to maintain itself,” Butler said.

Butler noted that the same turn of phrase, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” is often applied to those who dare question the American government.

To Butler, this argument rings hollow, given the historical treatment of her communities.

“If anything, I would say that we’re biting the hand that has historically suppressed us and slapped us and beaten us, and we’re fighting back against that,” she said.

While a seat at the table at an elite school may be seen as progress to many students, what we have today is closer to limited representation without an ounce of respect.

Would a university that claims to respect marginalized people defend favoring applicants connected to major donors? Would a university that seemingly respects marginalized people refuse to create an Ethnic Studies department despite 50 years of campus activism? And would a university that respects marginalized people contribute to the horrific experiences of its doxxed students by condemning the phrase “from the river to the sea,” an activist call for a permanent ceasefire — that is, nonviolence — in Israel and Palestine, as “hurtful”?

Students demonstrate outside University Hall in support of an Ethnic Studies department, a longtime demand from campus activists.
Students demonstrate outside University Hall in support of an Ethnic Studies department, a longtime demand from campus activists. By Julian J. Giordano

“The framing of ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ kind of misses that the hand is feeding us crumbs, and biting said ‘hand’ allows us the opportunity to actually achieve something that is actually full — achieve full sustenance and health and safety for our communities,” Butler said.

“It’s wanting better for my family and for our entire community that motivates me to do the work that I do,” Butler said.

Between the experiences of Butler and Nasher, one thing becomes abundantly clear about student activists: They know that their communities deserve more than a single person receiving the opportunity to ‘make it.’ It is perfectly reasonable for these students to simultaneously be grateful for their position and frustrated with the system that left many of their peers behind.

Neither being “the one who made it” nor being grateful for what you have means that you owe “the hand” a thing. If anything, it means that you know why the system so badly needs to change, and that you have the power to bite back.

Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Government and Sociology in Adams House. His column, “Boston: Education’s Capital City,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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