Office of Diversity and First-Generation Programs reflects on founding, first year

Oct. 8, 2012, 1:00 a.m.

Stanford is a school that prides itself on diversity, but according to Director of the Office of Diversity and First-Generation Programs, Tommy Lee Woon, there is one issue of diversity that is almost entirely ignored: socio-economic diversity.

“There is visible support here for students of different races, for women, for students with disabilities, different religious backgrounds, sexual orientations,” Woon said. “The shadow population is people from different socio-economic backgrounds.”

Nearly 15 percent of this year’s incoming freshman class associated with the phrases “first-generation” or “low-income,” but according to Woon, discussions of class issues are often viewed as taboo.

“We as a society don’t know how to talk about socio-economic class,” Assoc. Vice Provost for Student Affairs Sally Dickson said.

Established in April 2011, the Office of Diversity and First-Generation Programs is a new addition to Stanford. It is not, however, the first time the University has made an effort to reach out to low-income or first-generation students.

According to Dickson, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions began to notice a growing number of incoming first-generation students seven years ago.

“The Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education at that time became cognizant of that and discussion started to grow,” Dickson said. “What are their needs, and is Stanford really providing the environment they need?”

A short while later, the issue was thrust into greater prominence by a Stanford undergraduate student, Siobhan Greatorex-Voith ’08, who was working on an honors thesis on the experience of first-generation students at elite universities. The administration took notice and decided to hire her.

“She was the first person hired whose responsibility was to identify the needs of first-generation and low-income students,” Dickson said. “But Stanford could not hire her the following year because it was 2008 and there was the economic downturn.”

In 2009, an anonymous donor who had read about the university’s efforts in this area approached Stanford with a gift – which led to the founding of the Office of Diversity and First-Generation Programs.

Woon, who runs the office almost entirely by himself, said one of its main goals is to create an environment where everyone – students, staff, and faculty – feels comfortable acknowledging and discussing the socio-economic diversity that surrounds them.

“There isn’t obvious support for discussion or community building,” he said. “We want to systematically create support for learning and engaging in conversation about socio-economic diversity.”

By encouraging discussion, the office hopes to build a system of support for students from the whole spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds.

“When students [who] come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds show up on campus and go through their lives here, there isn’t obvious support for them,” Woon said. “And I’m talking about everyone. People who are poor can’t see any evidence that there is anyone who can understand where they’ve come from. Some of the rich kids feel like they can’t admit they’re rich.”

“What’s been challenging is that there are certain identities one more readily accepts,” Dickson said. “When it comes to issues of class in this country, it’s much more complicated and nuanced.”

In its inaugural year, the office focused on establishing itself as a presence on campus.

“In our first year, we tried to communicate that we exist, that there is an abundance of support here,” Woon said.

They started last year off with a welcome dinner, which brought in about 135 students – mostly freshmen. They also held small group meetings, called “chill-outs,” once a month throughout the year. In addition, they organized a variety of conversations to try and get students – and the rest of the Stanford community – to start talking about issues of class.

Along with its own programs, the office is also focused on establishing relationships with other groups on campus.

“Behind the scenes, we tried to create campus partnerships, develop on-campus support for students,” Woon said. “We want to develop a higher awareness and capacity to support students. This is a one and a half person office – it’s a lot of action with a lot of partners.”

The office’s projects include getting faculty members involved to discuss class issues and organizing an alumni mentorship program. But they also lean heavily on other programs on campus that could advance their goals, like workshops, on campus jobs or student efforts to make life on campus more affordable.

“They don’t have to be our programs, but we’re probably going to use them,” Woon said.

Both Woon and Dickson emphasized that the office is not doing anything the students aren’t capable of doing for themselves, but exists to establish a system of support and to help ease the transitions that students face when they come to college.

“We’re here just to provide enrichment. We mostly just want them to know that they’re not alone,” Dickson said. “What we’re doing is engaging students, faculty and staff to think about how class affects their experiences.”

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