Low-income, first-gen students face challenges with remote quarter

April 30, 2020, 9:15 p.m.

This article is the fifth installment in a series examining how students are spending spring quarter.

Amid a remote spring quarter, some students face extra pressures while attempting to learn. FLI students, those who are in the first generation of their family to go to college and/or come from low-income families, report a number of challenges, including taking on familial obligations, coping with financial stress and navigating their identity. The University and student organizations have been working to address concerns, but some students say the efforts are not enough.

Upon leaving campus, students have had to deal with the stressors of home life. FLI families may face especially intense financial uncertainty. Many FLI students’ parents have been unable to work remotely, as stay-at-home orders have been enacted across the country.

Fatima Lopez ’23 says her parents have not been able to work since the stay-at-home order in the Bay Area was instituted in mid-March.

“I think everyone is a little stressed,” Lopez said. “Money is definitely still in every conversation … Having my parents be like, ‘Oh, that’s too expensive,’ or ‘Oh my god, it was this amount when we went grocery shopping.’ [We are] pretty much just always talking about how much things cost.”

Ashley Nguyen ’23, a FLI student from Oklahoma City, has been translating forms for her parents, previously employed as nail technicians, so they can receive unemployment benefits.

In addition to dealing with newfound financial stress, FLI students may face familial responsibilities, further limiting the time they have to put towards academics, according to Brandi Pretlow, the director of the Leland Scholars Program (LSP), a residential program created to help ease the transition for FLI frosh into Stanford.

Pretlow said that some students might be put into positions where they have to take care of younger family members because their parents are essential workers.

“Some of our students have more responsibilities while they’re at home,” she said in an interview with The Daily. “Caretaking, whether it’s siblings, nieces, nephews … [with] all these increased responsibilities it can be harder to focus on academic work.”

FLI students have also communicated to Pretlow problems with finding a quiet space to study now that they aren’t on campus.

“They may be in a place that they have no familiarity with, and now they’re supposed to do this academic work from that place,” Pretlow said. “It might be hard to find a space that is focused and quiet for them to get all of their work done.”

Even without the influence of external changes, some students reported issues facing barriers as a FLI student while handling remote learning in new environments.

Julia Briones ’22 told The Daily that because FLI students often came from lacking educational systems, they were less prepared to self-learn.

“Low-income students are not taught to self-learn,” Briones said. “That’s going to be a challenge for students who come from low-resource public schools. I worry how those of us who are low income will do at self-learning … simply because that’s not something we’ve practiced before.”

FLI students at home may feel a particular pressure to succeed, Lopez said. 

“Growing up [my parents] always told me about their struggles coming here so that their kids could succeed,” Lopez said. “Being [home] is an additional reminder that you have to work harder … I feel like I owe my parents to always be working … which can be very mentally draining. I think that comes from being the first one [to attend college] and trying to do justice to this privilege.”

FLI students still on campus have reported dealing with the feelings of stress and falling behind, even in a familiar environment.

Pamela Beltran ’23 said that life on Stanford’s campus is still just as fast-paced, but now accompanied by feelings of loneliness.

“It just seems like everything is going really fast, and I feel behind all the time,” Beltran said. “It’s harder to focus. I think when this whole pandemic situation started, it just leaves you thinking about the people around you, and since I’m not back home, I constantly think about my family and how they’re doing.”

The University has been exploring several different avenues to help FLI students, from increasing financial aid to continuing to foster community.

Nguyen told The Daily that the Stanford Financial Aid Office gave out extra financial aid to some of her FLI friends who needed help covering family expenses such as rent. The grocery stipend Stanford provided to Nguyen “helps out a lot,” she said.

Nguyen also credits the broader Stanford community for supporting students. As campus closed down at the end of winter quarter, students, faculty and alumni pooled resources such as housing and storage space, for the use of anyone who needed them. Some dorms even opened up their slush funds, disbursing monetary assistance to any student who requested it. 

Aside from financial assistance, there have also been attempts by both the University and student groups to provide emotional support to students. Pretlow said student groups like FLIP (First-Gen and Low-Income Partnership) and LSP have made efforts to keep the FLI community connected.

“Both the FLI office and FLIP and LSP council have been trying to hold a variety of events for students,” Pretlow said. “From connecting folks to housing, and having a FLI supply drive, having the constant communication and updates from them has been really helpful.”

Some students, however, still feel as though Stanford could be doing more to engage with FLI students in these stressful times.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a ton of outreach to FLI students,” Lopez said. “I would say that the things that were typically there are there but this whole situation demands for more support.” 

Lopez suggests that Stanford reach out to students on an individual basis. “When students are isolated … I don’t think it’s fair to hold them accountable for reaching out when reaching out can be the biggest challenge.”

One institutional policy, the change in grading basis to mandatory Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC), has helped ease the minds of some students.

“The policy has definitely alleviated a lot of my worries,” Nguyen said, adding that she has used the extra time to help her parents seek unemployment benefits. “[Not having letter grades] creates less stress for me as a FLI student since there’s so many factors at hand during a pandemic.”

Some report, however, that S/NC classes bring just as much stress as classes on a typical grading scale. Beltran talked about the difficulty of classes this quarter due to unadjusted teaching in an interview with The Daily. 

“I think the pass-fail thing has been helpful … but the perspectives of the professors need to align with that policy,” Beltran said.

A couple of weeks ago, FLIP coordinated an event to help with this issue, and communicate the unique situations of FLI students to Stanford faculty.

“[FLIP] had an event recently called ‘What I Wish My Professor Knew’ just communicating to staff, faculty, lecturers, here are some of the concerns FLI students have, and here are the ways that you can support them, and things to take into consideration,” Pretlow said.

Trying to meet the needs of FLI students in different situations is going to require a lot of listening and flexibility, according to Pretlow.

“There’s just a desire to call on the University to continue to be flexible and creative to the extent possible,” she said. “There’s not one solution that’s gonna work for everyone’s differing needs.”

Contact Ravi Smith at ravi22 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Lizzie Avila at eaavila ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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