The First Gen Movement

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As we’ve reported, over the past decade many elite colleges have taken great strides to admit low-income students, but there are unanticipated financial and cultural barriers to fitting in on campus that can’t easily be solved by merely giving students a foot in the door. Things like understanding how to ask for help from professors and tutors, learning how to speak up in class, finding people to hang out with when you can’t afford to go to a fancy restaurant off campus – these are just a few common issues facing first-generation college students – or students who are the first in their families to go to college. These questions of class differences between rich and poor have spurred a nationwide movement of “first generation” student clubs on college campuses. The clubs provide a way for first-gen students to find each other on campuses where social class can be taken for granted. A decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find college students who would talk openly about being poor. But leaders of new these new are encouraging students to wear their socioeconomic status like a badge of honor.

Harvard’s First Generation Student Union was recently profiled in both the Boston Globe and the New York Times. Harvard has long been a place that has been financially generous to low-income students, but not necessarily the kind of environment where you’d be willing to talk about being poor.

On this week’s podcast, Stephen Smith interviews Ana Barros, president of Harvard’s First Generation Student Union and Anthony Jack, a doctoral student at Harvard who studies race and class at elite colleges, and who was a first-generation student as an undergrad at Amherst College, from which he graduated in 2007.

Anthony Jack and Ana Barros. Photos: Harvard Crimson; First Gen Dreams

Anthony Jack and Ana Barros. Photos: Harvard Crimson; First Gen Dreams

American RadioWorks also reported on this topic last year as part of our documentary, The New Face of College.