Imagine you and a friend are both learning how to drive. Your friend decides to drive you around the neighborhood in their dad’s car; within a few minutes, you can tell that they more or less know what they are doing. And it makes sense. Although they haven’t driven alone before, they took lessons from a private driving instructor, participated in a paid driver’s ed class and have parents who occasionally point out driving tips while out on the road. When your friend is done, they park around the corner. It’s your turn.
You settle into the front seat. In front of you lies the gas pedal, the brakes and the steering wheel. Simple enough. You put on your seatbelt and start the car.
Your parents do not know how to drive — they ride the bus. You would be the first person in your family to learn. Hands on the wheel, you know you have not taken driver’s ed or had an instructor of any sort; you could not afford it. But you did what was within your means — you read the booklet from the DMV cover to cover.
Compared to your friend, there are more bumps on the road for you to navigate — more cars honking at you, more sudden stops, more obstacles along the way. Driving just isn’t as easy for you.
Afterwards, your friend tells you how admirable it is that you are trying to drive without proper instruction, but that does not change the fact that you do not know how to drive. You realize that although you both intend to travel down the same road, there is no guarantee that the two of you will end up in the same place. Let’s face it — although you did the best with what you were given, they are better prepared.
When you talk to your parents about it at home, they empathize the best that they can. But no matter how much they try, they can’t fully relate — and how could they? They have never driven before. “You can do it,” they say. “And if it turns out that you can’t, you can still ride the bus with us.”
Students who are the first person in their families to go to college often have similar experiences throughout their undergraduate careers. We have to get over learning curves that are much steeper than those of our peers. Maybe we aren’t as financially literate. Or maybe it’s a few weeks into freshman year until we realize what “office hours” are.
We hear people call us resilient. Powerful. Strong. But when we are failing intro-level classes because our high schools did not prepare us adequately, we do not feel resilient. When we have to ask financial aid for funds to cover the cost of food over spring break, we do not feel powerful. When we have to make up excuse after excuse to conceal why we can’t go out to eat with friends, we do not feel strong.
Oftentimes, we have trouble talking about our experiences here with our families back home. In some cases, it’s because we feel guilty that we left them behind to come here, and other times we feel that no matter how hard they try, they do not understand what we are going through.
It is especially isolating when the sense of privilege and entitlement pervades our dorms, as it often does. For example, it bothers us when our peers leave used napkins in the dining hall for the janitors to pick up because “it’s their job.” Some of our parents are janitors and housekeepers back home, working to make ends meet. Treat them with respect.
More so, we feel it in the classroom. When we do not know how to talk to professors, properly study for chemistry exams or secure a research position for the summer, we cannot call our parents and ask them how they went about it in college. We have to figure it out on our own. And because we are used to doing things by ourselves, it’s hard for us to ask for help. But here we are doing it anyways, because something needs to change.
Two weekends ago, 14 students represented Stanford at the 1vyG conference at Yale University. The conference, designed to give a voice to first-generation and/or low-income college students, brought together over 400 students from 18 universities across the country, including the Ivy League. In conversations with students at the conference, I learned where Stanford stands in its support of first-generation and/or low-income students.
Only a handful of the schools represented at the conference had something like our Opportunity Fund, a fund for students who need money that financial aid cannot offer — such as funds to fly back home in an emergency, or money to buy professional clothes to wear to interviews. Some of the schools that did offer such a fund required that students treat it as a loan and pay it back.
Additionally, only a few schools offered a version of our Welcome Grant, a $2,000 grant given to low-income freshmen over the course of their first year to help them cover the necessary expenses of transitioning to college. Stanford adopted the grant after Harvard College announced it would be offering their its version of it, the Start-Up Grant, last year.
Even having free laundry helps.
But there’s more that needs to be done. To give first-generation and low-income students a greater sense of belonging on campus, Stanford needs to do the following:
1. Keep residences and dining halls open during all breaks. For some of us, Stanford is our safe haven; outside of it, we might not have a place to call home. Because we are not allowed to remain on campus during winter break, for example, some of us deal with food insecurity and not having a place to sleep. This leaves us anxiously counting down the days until we are allowed to move back in.
2. Build a community center for first-generation and/or low-income students that is comparable in size and quality to the cultural community centers on campus. Fifteen percent of undergraduates identify as being the first person in their family to go to college, compared to the 16 percent who identify as Latinx and 6 percent who identify as African-American, two groups who have their own community centers on campus. We deserve a space, too.
3. Expand the Welcome Grant to cover all four years, even if it is at the reduced amount of $500 per quarter, instead of the $2,000 total for the year. The Welcome Grant allows us to cover expenses some of us otherwise cannot afford, such as textbooks, bike repairs and flights back home.
4. Gradually expand the Leland Scholars Program. The Leland Scholars Program brings 60 Stanford freshmen to campus the month before NSO and gives them a toolkit to help them transition to college. Students enroll in a chemistry course and a writing course and take midterms and finals and write papers, which helps them better prepare for the challenges of fall quarter.
Additionally, Leland Scholars enroll in a one-unit class after the summer during fall and winter quarters. This helps them maintain their connections to their fellow Scholars, giving them an unparalleled sense of community in their first few months here. However, as mentioned, 15 percent of students identify as first-generation and/or low-income; this means that about 260 freshmen are first-generation, while the Leland Scholars Program can only accommodate 60 students. Expanding the program in a way that does not dilute its impact on the students who participate will give more first-generation students a community and sense of agency that will carry them through their four years here.
5. Offer academic support for first-generation students pursuing humanities and arts, as well as STEM fields. In general, people already tend to pursue “techie” fields more than they pursue “fuzzy” ones at Stanford. However, this is even more so the case with first-generation students, because majoring in philosophy, for example, does not necessarily guarantee the financial stability we need. First-generation students often do not have a safety net to fall back on, and thus feel pressured to pursue tracks that promise some sort of tangible payoff in the future. By holding conferences geared toward such students to help them navigate their studies, we can increase socioeconomic diversity in the humanities and arts.
At convocation, Dean Richard Shaw told us we are all here for a reason. All of us. Help us level the playing field. Help us prove him right.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Editor’s Note: This was originally published in two parts on March 1 and March 6.