Visions for change: Sharing experiences of first-gen, low-income students
How selective universities can support lower-income and first-generation college students was the subject of two conferences on Princeton’s campus Feb. 15-19. More than 300 students and 150 administrators traveled from across the country to build community, share experiences and create visions for change.
“1vyG” is the largest conference for first-generation and low-income (FLI) students in the nation. Princeton students organized the fifth annual gathering with the theme “From Moment to Movement: Capitalizing on Our FLI Experiences to Become Agents of Change in Our Communities.”
“This is a safe space for FLI students to meet each other, to connect with and empower each other, to have fun and to think about changes we want to bring back to our communities,” said Princeton sophomore Anna Macknick, who co-chaired the conference with sophomore Kiki Gilbert and juniors Karina Aguilar Guerrero and Jaylin Lugardo.
The FLI students were welcomed by Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber during an address in the University Chapel.
“I am delighted by the promise, the energy and the excitement that you bring together,” Eisgruber said. “I am thrilled by the prospect of the contributions that you will make, the changes that you will bring, to our campuses and, more importantly, to the society and the world that needs your talent and your leadership.”
A separate conference for administrators who work with FLI students included faculty and staff from 40 highly selective institutions. The event nearly doubled in size from the first FGLI Administrators Consortium meeting at Princeton last year.
Organizers said the synergy between conferences this year fostered conversation and collaboration among students and administrators.
“One of the primary purposes of this convening is to build community, so that we might better share best practices and, ultimately, enhance the experience of the first-gen, lower-income students on our campuses,” said Khristina Gonzalez, Princeton’s associate dean of the college and director of programs for access and inclusion. “We want to promote not just access, but [student] success. This is not a one-off event. This is not simply a moment, but indeed a movement.”
Keynote conversation with Eisgruber and Porterfield
Gonzalez, who moderated the talk, said both leaders have been instrumental in ensuring that talented FLI students have more equitable access to highly selective universities and colleges. Eisgruber and Porterfield are on the steering committee of the American Talent Initiative (ATI). ATI’s goal is to attract, enroll and graduate 50,000 additional high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students at the nation's top schools by 2025.
At Princeton, the percentage of students eligible for federal Pell Grants tripled from the Class of 2008 (7 percent) to the Class of 2020 (21 percent). Princeton also reinstituted a transfer admission program particularly aimed at low-income students, community college students and U.S. military veterans. When Porterfield was president of Franklin and Marshall College, he led the Next Generation Initiative to increase low-income and underrepresented students at the college.
“If you look at what Princeton has done by increasing access to more students from more backgrounds and growing the enrollment a little bit … it makes the school a stronger place,” Porterfield said to Eisgruber. “The whole country has followed your lead and I’m very appreciative of it.”
Gonzalez asked why socioeconomic diversity is a priority within higher education.
“The why is easy. In America talent deserves the opportunity to rise. That is what America is all about,” Porterfield said. “You should lower the barriers and blocks, the things that keep talent from thriving.”
Eisgruber added that diversity in all its forms is essential to the mission of higher education.
“We are not going to be excellent in any aspect of our mission — in molecular biology, or music, or engineering, or any kind of leadership we want our graduates to show — unless we are bringing talent from every sector of society,” he said.
He noted the transformative power of a four-year degree, and said providing more college opportunities for lower-income students leads to greater socioeconomic mobility.
Eisgruber and Porterfield also stressed that admitting more FLI students is only half the battle. Faculty and staff must also support and respect students so they can thrive and succeed once enrolled. And that is why the work of FGLI administrators is so important, the leaders said.
Eisgruber said highly selective institutions can also do more in two areas: diversifying doctoral students in addition to undergraduates, and supporting public universities, which have long educated first-generation and lower-income students and now face lower per capita resources than in the past.
“We have a lot to do still. We are just coming into our own as a set of highly selective institutions,” Porterfield said. “This notion of unity in American diversity … to me that is our challenge as a country. How do we find space for all to flourish? How do we create communities and societies where education is strong for all, where opportunity ladders are real for all, and where we define ourselves by our commonality and our respect for and our love for each other’s differences?”
The administrators’ conference featured workshops on peer mentorship, supporting undocumented students, empowering students to forge paths to graduate and professional schools, and encouraging faculty engagement with FLI students. It included a meet-and-greet with Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack, author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.”
Many of the faculty and staff attending the event were once first-generation college students themselves.
The FGLI Administrators Consortium was co-founded by Gonzalez; Kourtney Cockrell, director of student enrichment services at Northwestern University; and Devon Moore, assistant dean of students in the college and director of the Center for College Student Success at the University of Chicago.
FLI student stories
Earlier in the weekend, first-generation and lower-income students from 34 colleges and universities attended panel discussions, workshops and networking events that examined FLI identities within three spaces: campuses, hometowns and professional lives.
The “1vyG” conference, organized by EdMobilizer, started at Brown University in 2015. Since then, different campuses have hosted the annual gathering.
“Voices of FLI students are often unheard or pushed to the wayside,” said, Gilbert, one of the Princeton conference organizers.
Student leaders said they hoped the conference would show FLI students how much their opinions matter, and also foster a strong community among students who come from “all parts of the country and from different walks of life.” At the end of the weekend, organizers hoped attendees would gain ideas and tools they could bring back to their own campuses for new policies and programs that promote inclusivity and student empowerment.
During one panel, Princeton Class of 2018 graduates My Bui and Jordan Thomas, as well as University of Pennsylvania senior Anea Moore, offered advice to FLI students starting college. Bui was co-chair of the Hidden Minority Council and a fellow with the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP), two groups for FLI students at Princeton.
“I was really grateful my junior and senior year to work with the first-generation and low-income mentoring group and help students find value in themselves,” Bui said. “I told them you are worthy of being here. You have every right to do and to want what other students are doing. I wish someone had sat me down [my first year] to say there is so much you are capable of and so much you are going to do at Princeton.”
Thomas said there were improvements for students of color and FLI students during his four years at Princeton. He credited students with pushing for many of the changes, noting when students led a sit-in at Nassau Hall over racial justice issues in fall 2015.
“What we did is spark a greater dialogue,” Thomas said. “Even though we didn’t achieve exactly what we expected, we did open up dialogue with administrators.”
During the keynote discussion “Looking Back, Reaching Forward,” Princeton Class of 2018 graduate and Board of Trustees member Myesha Jemison led a conversation with Viet Nguyen, co-founder of EdMobilizer, and Jessica Brown, cofounder of 1vyG. Panelists asked about the biggest challenges still facing FLI students. Responses ranged from mental health, food insecurity and the cost of books to self-doubt, avoiding burnout, not knowing how to seek help and lack of mentors.
“In higher education, we often talk about metrics like graduation rates,” Nguyen said. “I’m glad we are talking now about the experience. It’s not just how to get first-generation and low-income [students] to graduate, but how do we not traumatize them in the process. Even things like when dining halls are not open during winter break for students who cannot travel home. We have so far to go. How do we get students to have experiences that are equal to their peers who don’t come from disadvantaged backgrounds?”
Brown said universities have made strides by creating new centers, programs and staff to support FLI students, but much is still needed.
“As we think about the entire institution, I never want to see all first-gen supports housed in one place,” she said. “I want every professor to be thinking about first-gen, low-income students. I want to make sure at every level, universities are thinking about students’ experiences.”