Students, educators discuss challenges in transitioning to Stanford from under-resourced schools

Feb. 21, 2019, 12:15 a.m.

Oluwaseun Adebagbo ’18 was one of the only students from her small, newly-founded school to attend a top-tier university. When entering Stanford, she had the full intention of studying Human Biology and becoming a doctor, until her pre-med advisor told her in junior year that she should quit studying pre-med and pursue a post-baccalaureate instead.

The Daily sat down with multiple students and educators to get their perspectives on the transition from an under-resourced high school to Stanford and to hear about the challenges in catering to a student body with diverse secondary education backgrounds.

Adjusting to Stanford

“[The advisor] looked at my GPA and was kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m just going to be honest, you can’t go out with friends anymore,’ making these assumptions of things that I was doing, and that that was the reason my GPA was the way it was,” Adebagbo said.

Adebagbo felt like she was putting plenty of work into improving her grades, and that the advisor’s comments were insulting to her efforts.  

“I had to just pause the conversation and say, ‘Look, I’m going to be a doctor, whether you like it [or not],’” Adebagbo said. “It wasn’t until I put my foot down and advocated for myself and was very serious that her tone in the conversation magically turned around.”

Pre-med student Kaylynn Cusic ‘19, who also attended an under-resourced high school, echoed Adebagbo’s comments, telling The Daily she lacked support from academic advisors.

“I’ve been told, ‘You just need to accept the fact that you’re not an engineer,’” she said. “And I did switch my major. It’s a harsh reality on this campus that many students are facing.”

Cusic was later placed on academic suspension, but, after writing a petition to stay, she was allowed to continue her studies.

“I wanted to fight for my position here, because I knew I had a purpose here,” she said. “But I understand that many students may not have the wherewithal to do that because of so many other things going on, and that’s absolutely okay — but the University should do more work for students who are going through that.”

Currently, there are resources at Stanford to aid students struggling academically, including academic counseling, which uses one-on-one meetings to teach students how to improve their study habits.

It’s a holistic approach to student academic support that evolved from traditional ‘study skills help’ to incorporate a broader picture of the challenges of college,” wrote learning strategy programs director Adina Glickman in an email to The Daily.

Despite this support, some students said they also felt unprepared for the rigor of Stanford classes, compared to students who had experience in college-level subjects during high school. Students specifically criticized courses such as the introductory chemistry series.

“It just seemed like everyone else around me but me had some kind of rigorous curriculum that helped them, that gave them an advantage when taking the class,” Adebagbo said.

To these students, the professors also appeared to be gearing their classes more toward students who did have some background in the subject.

“I felt like my professors automatically assumed that their students had a sufficient background to at least understand the concepts that they were presenting in the class,” Cusic said.

Senior lecturer Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann, who teaches Chemistry 31A and 31B, said that she doesn’t expect students to come into class with any background in chemistry. A more advanced chemistry course, Chemistry 31X, used to be the only introductory chemistry class taught at Stanford. In 2004, however, Chemistry 31A and 31B were created for students who needed a slower chemistry class.

“[Chemistry] 31A, B was created for really anybody that has not had chemistry before, but also people who may have had some and they need more than a quarter to digest it, because there’s a lot of content,” she said. 

Although some students may place into Chemistry 31X, they can still opt to take Chemistry 31A, wrote Schwartz in an email to The Daily.

“The spread in student preparation is quite challenging for instructors too,” she said. “Because there is so much variation even within AP courses, a student still might feel they need additional time with the material.”

Pre-med student Alessandra Marcone ’20 said she had sufficient resources when she took the introductory chemistry courses. Though she does not come from an under-resourced school, she said, she had very little background in chemistry when entering Stanford.

“I think that chem is a really hard subject, and that the chem department is doing a good job at trying to provide resources to students, but that with a hard subject it’s always going to be challenging for people,” Marcone said. “But at the end of the day, I do think that there are a lot of resources available to students in chem, and that if you’re willing to put in the extra time, you can help yourself succeed.”

Adebagbo grew up in Boston, and went to a school where only 26 students were part of her graduating class. She does not put her high school at fault for her difficult transition at Stanford.

“There’s only so much you can expect from a fairly new school,” she said. “So I think a lot of my anger [is] toward Stanford — you knew who I was when you accepted me. You knew the kind of high school I went to. You knew the environment I was coming from.”

Initially, after her freshman year, Adebagbo had decided to discontinue the pre-med track and do a post-baccalaureate instead.

In school in general I felt like I wasn’t doing well, and I was kind of like, ‘Well maybe I’m just not supposed to be here, or maybe I’m not smart enough,’” she said. “So I kind of just accepted fate in a way.”

Junior year, however, Adebagbo went to academic counseling, retook her chemistry classes and began pursuing pre-med again.

“I’d prepare for class before going to class; I would try to teach myself the material before coming into class, so that way I took a lot more out of the lecture,” she said. “And then after that, I would still go back and study.”

Questioning resource efficacy

To Adebagbo, however, academic counseling and office hours alone were not enough.

“You accept a student like me into Stanford and you expect magically that I’ll figure myself out,” she said. “Fortunately for me, I did figure it out, two years in, [but] I can’t say the same for every single person that was in my shoes.”

As a solution, Adebagbo proposed Stanford send emails specifically addressed to students from under-resourced schools, helping them in their transition. She also suggested a year-long mentorship program for such students.

“I can understand, as a freshman you may feel targeted, but I strongly feel like the benefits outweigh the temporary [feeling],” she said.

There is an existing program to help students from under-resourced schools transition to life at Stanford. The Leland Scholars Program (LSP) accepts 60 students per year, and those students spend four weeks on Stanford’s campus together taking a Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) class and a Chemistry course. LSP Program Administrator Andrew Vasquez thinks that the program alone is not enough to prepare under-resourced students, however.

“As it stands, our summer program is not sufficient to adequately prepare all students,” he said. “I think it’s a great way to introduce students to a lot of the intricacies of what it means to be enrolled in a Stanford course, [but] four weeks to learn at the same level that a lot of professors at the university are expecting students to come in with [is not enough].”

Interactions with professors

Cusic said promoting more resources would not be enough because her primary concerns revolve around her professors.

“I’ve been in situations where [professors] are teaching students like me, when I’m asking questions, and I can see the frustration on their faces, because I’m the one asking the questions that caused them to explain things from a basic level,” she said.

Like Cusic, Amadou Bah ‘19 doesn’t think additional resources would be the most helpful way to combat the academic challenges students from under-resourced schools face.

“I wouldn’t just say that having these resources on campus isn’t going to substitute or compensate for all those years of education that you didn’t have, or that access that you didn’t have before,” he said. “You can’t teach me something in 10 weeks that I didn’t learn for years.”

Cusic and Bah both said they wish professors had allotted more time and consideration for students who didn’t have previous experience.

“I want to make sure that when [professors] are actually talking to you, they’re taking time to break down the concepts, and speaking to someone as if they’ve never been exposed to the material before,” Cusic said. “Not in a demeaning or degrading way, but approaching the material as if we’re starting from a very very new foundation.”

Schwartz, who also teaches the LSP chemistry course, said that she is very open to basic questions from her students. She said she encourages students to reach out to different faculty members or Teaching Assistants if a professor is not working for them.

There are so many learning styles and personalities out there and I hope that all students can find someone who is a good fit for their own needs,” Schwartz wrote in an email to The Daily. “We really want students to succeed and so it is important that they can get all questions answered.”

The Diversity and Access Office has worked with faculty through workshops centered on cultural humility, particularly with regard to professors’ attitudes toward students, Vasquez said. In 2014, the Stanford First-Generation and Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) led a workshop for professors titled, “What I wish my professor knew.” However, Vasquez added, there is still more work to be done.

“It’s not like after one workshop someone has eliminated their biases,” he said. “I also think that it’s not just individuals but it’s also systemic. It’s the way that certain academic policies are made, the way that certain courses are sequenced or the ways that majors are designed.”

Marcone, on the other hand, found chemistry professors very clear and helpful.

“Chem classes have been some of my favorite, and honestly the teachers have consistently surprised me by how good they are at explaining the concepts,” she said.

The chemistry department added companion courses for 31A, 31B and 33, targeted at students without a background in chemistry, in 2010. Students in LSP are given preference for these courses, though anyone can take them. There are also spots reserved for FLI (first-generation and/or low-income) students.

According to Schwartz, the companion courses have been successful. She said FLI students who stay in the companion courses throughout their first year at Stanford are “on par with any other student in this [series] who took Advanced Placement” by the end of the year.

“If you’re out there on your own, feeling like, ‘I’m the only one in this course that doesn’t know what’s going on,’ you feel very abandoned,” she added. “But if you’re part of this group, you’re like, ‘I’m not the only one, and I know an instructor, and I have a study group that supports me.’ That’s a night and day difference in the course.”

Beyond classroom challenges

Bah said academics are not the only obstacle faced by Stanford students from under-resourced schools.

“When I think about my school, it wasn’t just [bad] because there was a lack of quality teaching,” he said. “When you go to a school where everyone is on free or reduced lunch, or some kids come to school solely for the purpose of eating lunch because they don’t have food at home, that is a whole different environment.”

Cusic was also met with judgement from other students in the classroom when she asked simple questions, she said. She sees Stanford’s culture as skewed toward students who already know topics well when entering the classroom.

“It’s not okay not to know right now at Stanford,” she said. “You have to know everything, or else you’ll look like a fool. I hate that.”

“It’s frustrating as instructors, too,” Schwartz said. “If someone should place into X, we can’t necessarily make them. I can’t kick a student out of my class and say, ‘You’re too qualified.’”

Bah hopes Stanford will make changes to its culture and be more open to accepting students from under-resourced schools.

“I feel like Stanford also needs to admit more kids from these backgrounds, because if your school is known for catalyzing upward mobility, you’re giving back to those communities when you admit these kids,” he said.

Cusic said she doesn’t want underprivileged students to face the difficult obstacles she has at Stanford.

“I don’t want people who come from my background to feel like it’s a burden to come here,” she said. “I want them to enjoy it as much as the next student.”


Contact Clara Kieschnick at ckiesch ‘at’

Clara Kieschnick ‘22 is a writer for The Daily’s campus life news beat. She is majoring in Biology and Comparative Literature, and grew up between Taiwan, Spain, England and California. You can follow her at @clara.metalstraws on Instagram. Contact her at [email protected].

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