Northwestern paves the way for first-generation students

Northwestern University recently announced the opening of an office for first-generation and low-income students called the Center for Student Enrichment Services, which will be housed within the Department of Campus Inclusion and Community. This new office will help fill some of the gaps in resources students have identified over the past few years, in addition to helping students find existing resources. Though students won’t get public recognition, there is no doubt in my mind that the work of Northwestern Quest Scholars is the reason this office is opening.

For those not familiar with Questbridge, it is a national scholarship program with 35 partner colleges. Questbridge has been instrumental in increasing the number of low-income students at some of the country’s top colleges. Each year, each partner college awards full-tuition scholarships to a certain number of students they select through the college match process (number of winners vary from college to college). The students selected become a part of the Quest Scholars Network. Each partner college has a Quest Scholars chapter led by students, though some chapters are more active than others. Northwestern’s chapter is really exceptional in the amount it does.

As a Quest Scholar at UChicago, I stayed in close contact with a few friends in the Northwestern chapter throughout my four years. I witnessed the chapter’s early beginnings to becoming one of the biggest, if not the biggest Quest Scholars chapter. In addition to their growth in size, their influence on their campus has been significant. From panel discussions to newspaper articles to even having a week of events focused on “money matters,” Northwestern Quest Scholars have made sure that the experience of low-income and first-generation students is at the forefront of the conversation. Their tactics for highlighting the need for more institutional support has also gone beyond public events.

In the article announcing the new office, Lesley-Ann Brown, director of the Department of Campus Inclusion and Community, cites the importance of student focus groups.

“Through focus groups with low-income students, Brown said she learned these students have struggled to build a community and often do not know where to go when they have questions or need support.”

Northwestern Quest Scholars, of course, were behind the focus groups that took place.

Last year, it would have seemed impossible for Northwestern to open an office for these students and now it’s a reality. Northwestern Quest Scholars are a strong example of what can be done to change college campuses. At least on selective campuses, they are one of the first successful examples of student advocacy for more support services for first-generation and low-income students. The experience of these students is often swept under the rug because they are high-achieving, but the need for proper support is just as important.

Though activism around this student population isn’t too common yet, it is gaining traction around the country. We are increasingly seeing student groups focusing on the first-generation and low-income identity, which is the first step to more action around this population. Hopefully, Northwestern’s win serves as an example of what is possible.


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