What does good support for first-gen students look like?

I recently read the article “First-Generation College-Goers: Unprepared and Behind” in the Atlantic.

A few lines about Yale stood out to me. The author quoted Christian Vazquez, a first-gen Yale graduate. He says, ‘There’s a lot of support at Yale, to an extent, after a while, there’s too much support,’ he said, half-jokingly about the myriad resources available at the school.’”

We learn a bit more about Yale’s support systems, “Students are placed in small cohorts with counselors (trained seniors on campus); they have access to cultural and ethnic affinity groups, tutoring centers and also have a summer orientation specifically for first-generation students (the latter being one of the most common programs for students).”

People love lauding elite colleges as beacons for first-gens, but none of Yale’s programs stand out as being particularly unique in terms of supporting first-gens. Access to cultural and ethnic affinity groups? You can find that on just about any campus. A summer bridge program? That’s not particularly unique either and it was just launched two summers ago. I think bridge programs are great, but it’s just one step to many more institutional needs.

As someone that has spent a lot of the last few years researching first-gen programs, there seems to be no true standards for what constitutes good support for first-gen students. It just seems the first-gen student experience is undervalued if general services like tutoring and affinity groups, along with a bridge program, constitutes great support for first-gens. Nowadays, it is considered the norm to have an office of multicultural affairs for students of color, but it seems schools still don’t see first-gen students as necessitating tailored resources.

I know some people think the key to first-gen student success is pointing them to general services, but I think we need to do a lot more. Tailored resources and services are needed, such as first-gen staff members and offices. Little research on this student experience makes it difficult to figure out what constitutes the best type of support, but we can start by listening to student stories. Rightly so, some students at Yale think their school can do a lot more for first-gens.

Over the last few years, I have read student articles critiquing Yale for its lack of support for first-gen and low-income students. Alejandro Gutierrez, now a Yale alum, wrote a column about his experiences as a first-gen student. He says, “There is no space that supports students who struggle through these very normal challenges transitioning to Yale. Not only was I discouraged by the difficulties I faced freshman year, but I also believed that it was my fault.” His column, published in the spring of 2013, seems to have been one of the sparks that led to the launching of the bridge program in the summer of 2013.

In November 2013, there was an article in the school paper titled “We don’t talk about it” which detailed the wealth stratification on campus and the lack of openness about socioeconomic class. In February 2014, Adrian Gutierrez, a student at Yale, wrote a column titled “A Bittersweet Quest.” A Quest Scholar, Gutierrez talks about feeling socially isolated at Yale because of his socioeconomic status.

He says, “As I detail my experience as a Quest Scholar, I feel that I’m echoing a letter that is addressed to all Questbridge applicants. In his letter, Michael McCullough, the president and co-founder of the organization, perfectly predicts the cultural gap present in our student body. Elite institutions, he explains, do not have advising systems tailored to low-income students. But he urges Quest Scholars not to let it get to them…Unfortunately, I am not heeding his words. Not only do others feel sorry for me, but I too am beginning to feel sorry for myself.”

Last year, I spoke to some students at Yale starting an organization called the Yale Undergraduate First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (inspired by Stanford’s group) to address some of the issues. A Tumblr called “Class at Yale” was launched by students to start the conversation around socioeconomic status.

These articles and student initiatives provide a greater analysis of what diversity and inclusion means on campuses. Graduation rates shouldn’t obscure the great complexity of diversity on campus. We need to redefine what an inclusive and supportive campus means. We need to have higher standards by which to judge colleges by.

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