How low-income students gained momentum at UChicago

Over the past two years, the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance at UChicago has accomplished more than I could have imagined. Dedicated to low-income and first-generation students at UChicago, SDA has grown tremendously since I first had the ambiguous idea of starting a conversation on class and low-income students on our campus. SDA has brought up various issues regarding low-income students, such as the inaccessibility of study abroad, classism within college housing, and the lack of orientation week programs for this population. These are all big endeavors, but it all started with a simple article I read two years ago.

By December 2012, I was starting to have more awareness regarding my low-income, first-generation identity. When I read the New York Times article “For poor, leap to college often ends in hard fall,” I knew that I had to start addressing the issues I saw at UChicago. The article highlighted the stories of three college students that had all the academic drive, but had been stopped in their tracks by financial instability, lack of guidance, and the complicated university bureaucracy.

I sent the article around to several people on Facebook and asked each of them “How does this relate to our experience?” It caught the attention of Christian Sanchez, one of the co-chairs of the Organization of Latin American Students. After coming back from winter break, we decided to put together a large group discussion on class at UChicago.

Our discussion included the Organization of Latin American Students, Organization of Black Students, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán. Students shared experiences of isolation, mental health issues, and lack of parental understanding of an elite institution. It was obvious many low-income and first-generation students lacked community and institutional support.

After that initial conversation, I visited other groups to talk to them about their experiences with class. It was a messy and confusing process, but I figured that talking to more people would help me get a better idea of what I wanted to accomplish.

I luckily found a strong ally in Cynthia de la Rosa, a senior that year. I’m not sure how I was able to gain her support, but with her by my side we were able to start mobilizing. Our goals became clearer. We wanted to be a group where low-income and first-generation students could build community, advocate for more resources, and spark class discussions. By spring 2013, we had a force of 5-6 people, which was enough to start getting some things done.

The rest is history. In spring 2013, the yet-unnamed SDA launched UChicago Class Confessions, inspired by Stanford FLIP (First-Generation Low-Income Partnership). We collected confessions on students’ experiences with class and the page went viral. It was even covered in USA Today and helped inspire Northwestern Class Confessions.

Since then, we have put together countless events, such as a panel discussion on low-income students, a screening of “First Generation,” and a “Navigating the university” symposium with presentations from study abroad, advising, and financial aid for underclassmen students. “Navigating the university” was so successful that it has become an annual event.

Due to our events and discussions, our efforts gained the attention of the administration. In January 2013, Dean Susan Art invited me and a few other students to a meeting about low-income students. We highlighted various issues:

  • Questbridge students are often confused about what they need to pay, as Questbridge brands itself as a full scholarship.
  • Students have trouble moving off campus because there is confusion about how aid is affected and it is difficult to save for security deposit.
  • Many UChicago summer internships don’t pay enough to allow for summer savings.
  • Financial aid doesn’t cover the flight when students study abroad.
  • CAAP (bridge program) is too exclusive and doesn’t allow for more participants during the school year.

While this meeting didn’t have actionable results, it did show that administrators were paying attention to what we were doing. By my senior year, SDA was having quarterly meetings with administrators, which included Dean Susan Art, the directors of financial aid and study abroad, in addition to many other administrators. With funding and support from administrators, we were able to hold our symposium, launch a survey on low-income students, and convene a focus group.

Among administrators, the Office of Multicultural Affairs proved to be our biggest ally. Since the very beginning, they were supportive of our work and offered us emotional and financial help. For our panel discussion last spring, they provided marketing, food, and a venue. Staff members also happily helped us brainstorm ideas for events and other issues. They were an indispensable resource for us and continue to be.

Despite the attention from administrators, we questioned whether our meetings were leading to any action. We wondered if we needed to approach this relationship differently.

However, UChicago made an announcement this fall that seemed to address many of the issues we brought up. With the enhancements to the Odyssey Scholarship (a scholarship for low students at UChicago), students are guaranteed paid summer internship or research opportunities after their first year, have no guarantee for employment during the academic year, and have the opportunity for more community-building events prior to orientation. With SDA’s dedication to raising awareness about low-income and first-generation students, I’m sure we were influential in these decisions.

Now, that I have graduated I feel excited to see the work the group continues to do over the next few years. I feel confident that it has an important place on campus and is helping to fill a void that existed before.

Some of the amazing events SDA has had

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