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Warning: FGLI Enter with Caution

By Jordan R. Robbins, Crimson Opinion Writer
Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.

What some Harvard students might not know is how unconquerable the social scene at Harvard can appear to first-generation, low-income students.

From networking to forming new connections to making new friends to simply finding affinity groups and outlets for side-passions, studies show that social integration for FGLI students is difficult, which makes sense considering how interconnected finances and sociability can be. Since closeness arises somewhat out of a sense of shared experience, it is often harder for low-income students to feel like they can connect with a large portion of Harvard’s student body; a large portion of which does not necessarily share the same financial worry.

Students tend to latch onto people with similar identities and backgrounds, which is not inherently bad. However, it does have negative impacts for FGLI students. Even if FGLI students try to make friends out of their comfort zone, higher-income students have a tendency to prefer grouping with fellow higher-income students. When higher-income students flock together, it casts a social shadow that sequesters FGLI students to the periphery. Making up a minority on campus, FGLI students are then relegated to the outskirts of the social scene.

Perhaps greater than most colleges, Harvard is a big culture shock. For FGLI students, there is especially a jump in the sheer number of social events, weight of social status, and social privilege. Students like myself did not have the opportunity to attend a private school with coveted faculty and a plethora of advisory resources. For many, we are not only the first in our family to attend college, but we are also the first from our high schools to attend institutions like Harvard. Thus, Harvard truly is an uncharted landscape. Some peers from established areas have safety nets because several students from their schools attend Harvard. There is a feeling of familiarity for some whereas, more often than not, FGLI students have no net to catch them.

Despite feeling a pseudo-acceptance at Harvard, when I reflect on places where I have felt least accepted, it has been in mundane moments: quick hallway quips or dining hall banters or Cabot conversations. While I do not wish to limit the freedom of my fellow peers to discuss their pasts, I also want them to be aware of their privilege, much in the same way that I am now aware of the privilege I have in attending an institution like Harvard. With each mention of international travel or educational opportunities or retreats or support systems that some FGLI students were never made aware of in their podunk high school or community, the empowerment of our experiences is lessened.

I am proud of what I have accomplished. But at an institution like Harvard, it would undermine my capacities for observation not to acknowledge that my high school qualifications are not on par with many of my peers. And that is a tough pill to swallow. It is not a matter of what I am capable of but rather a by-product of how my circumstances have shaped my capabilities thus far.

And sadly, while making more of an effort than some institutions, Harvard has not implemented a way to defeat these foolhardy social consequences of being FGLI. In fact, a covert way that some FGLI students are left feeling further isolated is by a Harvardism — the blocking process. With little time to make friendships, and the deep desire to network that pervades Harvard, FGLI students might be considered low-prospects for being good blocking-mates due to their lack of social capital on campus. While my pandemic blocking experience was entirely different from what previous and upcoming years will experience, I feel as though I saw, along with many other students (non-FGLI, alike), how stratifying the blocking system can be without the opportunity to socialize in person.

Personally, I floated, and not of my own volition. And luckily, I was placed with some excellent roommates with identities completely different from my own. While I am content with my current housing situation, I do wonder how different my experience would be if I had found a group of friends or been given the chance to socialize truly with others, aside from last year’s virtual college landscape. Similarly, a recent Undergraduate Council survey found that most students did not find blocking to be an inclusive process.

Beyond the scope of being FGLI, there are walls in place that preclude many students from adapting to the social scene at Harvard. Whether this is from self-inflicted schisms stemming from low self-worth or from a lack of opportunities to connect deeply with others, it is becoming increasingly common for individuals to stick with familiarity rather than extend a hand to others. Despite a large campus, it seems as though there’s no longer margin of error to be different.

But, to my fellow classmates: I urge you to continue trying. College is thought to be the time to finally find your “people,” but it is not that for everyone. That does not negate your efforts in trying: to strive, to seek, to socialize, and perhaps not to find those connections … but still also never to yield. Do not permit external factors to chip at your identity. Trying at all is a stronger testament to your character and personhood than any Harvard seal of approval can confer.

Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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