‘Same storm, different boats’: Navigating Stanford while FLI

April 26, 2022, 11:58 p.m.

Skye Syles ’25 was finishing up her winter break packing when R&DE staff barged into her room shortly after the move-out deadline and demanded that she leave immediately.

Syles had gone through stressful weeks trying to figure out where she would be staying during winter break. Given that Syles is housing-insecure, questions clouded her mind: Where would she live? How would she get access to food? Most importantly, how would she pay for it all? These questions left Syles with “little to no reprieve or rest.”

“Studying has been the easiest part of being at Stanford. Being alive is the hardest part,” Syles said.

Once she was kicked off campus, R&DE offered her subsidized off-campus housing in the Creekside Inn for “students who have explored all other options and still need a place to stay during the entire winter break period,” according to Senior Director of Communications for Student Pat Harris. The food and housing $2,000 stipend provided by R&DE had to be used to pay for the stay at the Inn — a surprise for Syles, who expressed outrage at the fact that Stanford requested back money meant for her food purchases.

This has not been the worst experience she has had as a first-generation, low-income (FLI) student on campus. Although there is no strict cutoff for who is considered low-income, Stanford’s financial-aid policy provides a full ride for students of parents with a total annual income below $65,000. Approximately 17% of the Stanford population identifies as FLI. In stark contrast, approximately 66% of Stanford students are a part of the top 20% income bracket, and 17% are from the top 1%. This wide economic disparity creates two very distinct Stanford experiences on campus.

“I think the biggest difference between whether you’re living in the FLI world or the non-FLI world at Stanford, is whether or not you’re aware that those two worlds even exist,” Syles said.

Owen Queeglay ’24 echoed these sentiments. “A lot of people say that we’re all in the same boat. But I feel that, at Stanford, everyone is in the same storm,” Queeglay said.

Queeglay explains that in this storm, certain students are on yachts, others on boats, while some are simply drifting through the ocean on a piece of driftwood.

“The worst part about it is that the people on yachts just think that this is a yacht party or a yacht meetup. They don’t even know that there are people drowning right beneath them or right next to them,” Queeglay said.

Lizbeth Hernandez Rios ’25 has experienced the painful truth of this yacht analogy, as she watched her classmates execute extravagant spring break plans. While she saw on Instagram students go to Cabo for spring break, Hernandez Rios stayed in her dorm, not having the financial means to even fly back home to the east coast.

Hernandez Rios also pointed out that the surrounding town of Palo Alto, which has an average household income of $158,271, is also incredibly inaccessible to FLI students. With little to no affordable dining and shopping options, Hernandez Rios feels that the geographical location is an additional barrier to FLI students.

Queeglay strongly echoed these sentiments, recalling living on campus this past summer. He spent a lot of that summer cooking for his dorm, with hopes of building community and connecting with his classmates. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. Queeglay grew frustrated with wealthier students, who didn’t respect the kitchen or the service he was providing. “They treated me as someone who worked for them. And it was really miserable,” Queeglay said.

He couldn’t understand why making human connections at Stanford was so difficult — his mental health suffered as a result. The summer experience was so suffocating that he decided to go home a week early. He left campus questioning what was wrong with himself.

“‘Why can’t I be happy here? Why can’t I make friends? What’s wrong with me?’ I went home, and everything clicked. I could have conversations with people, and it’d be nice, and I realized there isn’t anything wrong with me. There’s something wrong with the environment,” Queeglay said.

As a frosh, Hernandez Rios described feeling a sense of academic pressure because of her FLI identity. She felt that she had to take as many units as possible to take advantage of the financial aid she was receiving. Since financial aid doesn’t cover summer courses, Hernandez Rios fears that if she deviates from her four-year plan, she won’t take all of the necessary courses on time.

“Stanford has some really cool classes, but I can’t afford to spend too many units on those courses when I feel as though I have to double major or double minor. I feel that, as FLI students, we have that mentality that we have to take advantage of everything that is put in front of us because we might not have that opportunity again,” Hernandez Rios said.

Queeglay relates to this sense of academic pressure. Being FLI at Stanford has made him “question whether grad school will be an option, because I don’t want to go through this again but with even less aid.”

Federal Work-Study (FWS) adds just another layer of inequality and further exacerbates the two worlds at Stanford. FWS was created to help colleges provide students with employment opportunities. Students working FWS jobs, however, are often low-income, leaving FLI students feeling as though they have to work to be here, while wealthier students are able to focus solely on their studies.

Queeglay works as much as he can. Currently, he’s working at Lab 64 and also works on the side cooking meals for people. Yet he feels very limited in what he can do, given that he can only work up to 15 hours a week under FWS, without an opportunity to negotiate his pay with the employer.

“I’m trying to teach myself to study at such an institution after being in a high school that really just wanted me to graduate. On top of that, I’m trying to also fund my place here,” Queeglay said.

Syles wishes that Stanford would listen to FLI students and what their needs are. She explained that to properly protect this vulnerable population, housing should be provided year-round, and there should be increased funding.

According to Harris, “The First-Gen and/or Low Income Office, part of the Division of Student Affairs, provides holistic support for first-generation and/or low-income undergraduates, transfers, current/former foster youth and FLI graduate students. Students created the First-Generation and/or Low Income Partnership.”

“As an FLI student, you shouldn’t have to explain yourself to have the chance to be understood,” Queeglay said. “All the time that FLI students waste explaining themselves is even more of a tax that we pay in order to go to this school and exist on the same plan as non-low-income students.”

While Harris told The Daily that “Stanford offers comprehensive, need-based financial aid that makes it possible for all admitted undergraduate students to attend,” Queeglay has had a drastically different experience. He is unable to pay the parent contribution that Stanford is requiring. He has had various meetings with the financial aid office to try and receive more aid. Each time, he feels that they have given him the runaround.

“They kept saying the same line that wasn’t an exact no. It’s something like, ‘Under the circumstances you presented us, we’re not sure if we can help you,’” Queeglay said. “I was like, Just stop giving me false hope or giving me an iffy answer about whether or not I’ll be able to afford to go to school.” 

Itzel Luna '25 is a University desk editor in the News section. She also serves as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Co-Chair. Luna is originally from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles and plans to major in Sociology on the data science, markets and management track with a minor in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Contact her at iluna 'at' stanford.edu

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