Harvard first-generation students discuss challenges

Harvard University first-generation students recently held a community conversation with students and administrators about the challenges they face navigating the college environment.

They highlighted issues that are subtle, which is why college administrators often overlook them.

Networking and Clothing

“I have not been to networking events because I don’t have the clothes, and I don’t have the money to buy them.”

Affordability of clothes is an issue at several points throughout college, especially during summer internships. I would dread the amount I would have to spend on a wardrobe for summer jobs. A lot of organizations have a business casual requirement, which can be a burden for low-income students.

Class supplies

“There are some classes that I can’t take because of the cost of the coursepacks…. It’s ironic that I took a class on the inequity in education whose coursepack cost more than $100.”

My academic major luckily didn’t require any textbooks. I mainly used novels (most available at the public library) and pdfs for class. However, costs for books played a role in determining other classes I would take, notably for electives and other general requirements. Some classes would require expensive computer programs or a long list of books not available at the public library. As a history buff, I always browsed the available history classes each quarter. Long book lists would dissuade me from picking certain ones.

Cultural capital

“A senior pointed out that, according to some studies, lower-income students are less comfortable speaking with adults in general, which can pose a challenge when they try to reach out to professors and staff members for support.”

This was definitely my biggest challenge in college. Speaking to professors was so intimidating. I felt that I wasn’t smart enough or that I was needlessly taking up their time. I didn’t face as much difficulty approaching other adults, but meeting professors was something I never got used to. By senior year, I was a lot more skilled and confident about talking to professors. I was also very much aware of the built-in fears, so I would force myself to go to office hours, which I avoided in my earlier years.

Summer opportunities

“We are expected to work over the summer, which limits what I can do in the summer… I don’t have the same opportunities as my peers who can study abroad or do an internship,” said a second junior.

The wealth disparities are most evident when students are pursuing summer opportunities. Some students can afford to go to Europe for the summer, while others have to work at a fast food restaurant because they can’t afford an unpaid internship. Elite universities have no excuse for not providing students with paid summer opportunities, especially given their huge endowments.

Barriers for immigrant parents

“A third junior said that parents who do not speak English can be confused by the communications sent out by the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, and that more bilingual resources should be available for families.”

So much of official university programming, emails, and websites is worded and framed in a way that doesn’t account for immigrant families or parents of first-generation students. Every school should have bilingual resources, in addition to sections on their websites for parents of first-generation students. Ideally, each school would have a point-person for these families too.

I’m really glad that the Harvard students had this event because it brought up a lot of issues that are a problem at elite schools, as well in many other schools across the country. Colleges and universities aren’t built for minority and first-generation students, so students need to slowly chip away at the institutional barriers.


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