I believe any change at a university has to start with the students. Over the past few years, I have done a lot of research on first-gen/low-income support services at different universities, particularly UChicago’s peer institutions. Stanford University has always stood out to me because of their first-gen initiatives. Their First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) stands out as one of the most active first-gen groups in the country. Stanford’s Diversity and First-Gen Office is one of the only offices for first-gens among peer institutions. An institutional office isn’t just created naturally, so I started to do some research on how it came about. I learned that it all started with a student’s undergraduate thesis.
Siobhan Greatorex-Voith graduated from Stanford in 2008. While a student at Stanford, she started to consider various questions regarding class dynamics at top colleges. Her sophomore year, she started to do research on first-gen students. Her findings uncovered the barriers that first-gen students face, particularly at Stanford.
Wanting to use her research to motivate changes, she sat down with some key administrators to talk about her work. Through her conversations, the university started to have focus groups on first-gen student experiences. She also wrote a proposal for what programs made sense at Stanford. This didn’t happen in isolation from other student initiatives. Around 2007-2008, a first-gen group was forming. It would take a few years, but it officially became known as FLIP in 2010.
Upon graduating, Stanford hired Siobhan to operate the “First Generation Program” at Stanford. She was essentially the first person to run the first-gen office at the university. One of her main tasks was to serve as a point person for students. She also helped organize a welcome for first-gens at the beginning of the year, among other projects. Siobhan was also in conversations with various administrative offices to partner on initiatives, such as making financial aid clearer for students. Unfortunately, the financial crisis happened and her position was cut within 3 months of starting.
A few years later the university was able to secure funding for the position, which is how the official Diversity and First Gen Office came about. Tommy Lee Woon was hired as the first director in 2011. He recently left the university, so the office has a few part-time staff continuing the programs, which includes a mentoring program, faculty lunches, and diversity trainings.
While Stanford still has a long way to go in supporting first-gen and low-income students, Siobhan’s work was crucial in setting the foundation. In a conversation with her, she emphasizes that her research was what led administrators to listen to her. Research shouldn’t be the end-all to changes, but it’s an important component and should be part of larger strategy for students wanting to make change.
Below are some more articles on first-gen student programs and initiatives at Stanford: