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First-generation students find uplift at Stanford

All photos courtesy of Michael Spencer

By Elaine C. Ray

“Many will say college is not for everyone, but damn it, it is for you,” Lateefah Simon, a nationally acclaimed civil rights and justice activist and community organizer told attendees at a recent conference of first-generation students and higher education administrators. “You don’t have a choice. We need you. The Earth needs you,” she said.

Simon’s message was the final keynote, but it resonated throughout the three-day Stanford FLI Conference, a national gathering by and for students who identify as first-generation.

The conference was an initiative of the Stanford First-Generation and/or Low-Income Partnership (FLIP), the Diversity and First-Gen Office (DGEN), and the Leland Scholars Program (LSP). They partnered with EdMobilizer, an organization dedicated to broadening access to undocumented and first-generation students.

The co-chairs of the conference were Ian Macato, a Stanford junior majoring in symbolic systems and comparative studies in race and ethnicity, and John R. Oberholzer, also a Stanford junior with a double major in chemistry and African and African American studies.

Themed “Uplifting Voices: Advocacy, Belonging and Community,” the conference brought together approximately 200 students and 50 administrators representing Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, MIT, Amherst, Oberlin, UC Berkeley, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Santa Clara University, the Community College of Rhode Island and many others.

Jennifer Rolen, who leads the DGen Office’s First-Generation and/or Low-Income programs, greeted the attendees. “We want to hear from you, we want to learn from you, we have the ability together to make change from coast to coast.”

The weekend featured more than 20 workshops and breakout sessions, with topics that ran the gamut from identity and intersectionality, creative expression, activism and financial literacy to navigating law school as a first-generation student. Workshop leaders included Greg Walton, associate professor of psychology, who led a workshop titled “Wise Interventions to Address Questions about Belonging and Promote Equity,” and Graduate School of Education Professor Eamonn Callan led a session on “Creating a Dignity Safe and Intellectually Unsafe Classroom.”

Ian Macato and John R OberJennifer Rolen hoding a paper sign that says alumni connectionsTony Jack speaking

'Be unapologetic. Be bold. Be you.'

During a lunchtime keynote on Saturday, March 3, Anthony “Tony” Jack, a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recounted his own experiences as a first-generation student at Amherst College, who worked four jobs to support his family back home, but could not afford to order pizza.

“I thought I could not go to concerts, even if tickets were free, if extra work shifts in the gym became available. Simply put: Rest was a luxury I thought I couldn’t afford,” he said.

He noted that many of the students in the room were the embodiment of generational dreams.

“Many of us arrived at the college gates along a path never traveled by anyone in our families. And this is a common reality, especially for those of us at quote/unquote good schools. Higher education, however, is highly unequal and depressingly stratified,” Jack said.

He noted that although roughly one out of every two students in college today are the first in their families to attend college, just 14 percent of the undergraduates at the most competitive colleges come from the bottom half of the income distribution. Children from families in the top 25 percent of the income distribution take up almost 75 percent of the seats, Jack said.

He said institutions must build in programs that take into account the complex experiences of a diverse student body. In his work, he explores the experiences of what he describes as the “Privileged Poor,” first-generation students who come from distressed urban or rural neighborhoods but attended private high schools, and the “Doubly Disadvantaged,” who attended under-resourced high schools. In his research at an elite Northeastern institution he called “Renowned University,” he found that these students arrived at college with distinctly different comfort levels when it came to taking advantage of campus resources. Some institutions assume that making opportunities like office hours or study abroad programs equally available to all students is enough, and that students who do not access them are undeserving.

“To admit a diverse student body means taking responsibility for educating a diverse student body. Why not define office hours instead of just repeating what is on the syllabus? There are lessons colleges also must learn. First-gen students, specifically, and those for whom college environments are new, more generally, should not be the only ones forced to change, to grow, to adapt.”

As another example, Jack noted that closing down cafeteria facilities during spring break also disadvantages low-income students as well as those who are who can’t go home for a variety of reasons.  He told of one student who arranged dates on a dating app in the hope that doing so would garner free meals. 

“When you help first-gen students, you make the campus better for all students. I fundamentally believe that. Examining the varied experiences between the ‘Privileged Poor’ and ‘Doubly Disadvantaged’ have led to direct policy interventions. These interventions help all students make the most out of college. Career, mental and support services at “Renowned” no longer wait for students to come to them. Rather, they developed programming where they proactively reach out. Moreover, they do so in a way that is more attuned to the cultural barriers to seeking help that goes beyond racial and gender differences.”

Jack ended his talk by encouraging students to demand as much from their institutions as their institutions demand of them.

 “Be unapologetic. Be bold. Be you.”

‘You are the manifestation of your grandmothers’ prayers .’

Lateefah Simon, currently president of the Oakland-based Akonadi Foundation, shared her life story as a “self-taught” person who began organizing when she was 16 years old.  Her radical parents and other adults fell victim to San Francisco’s Filmore neighborhood crack epidemic. She was in and out of high school because she worked full time to keep her family out of the grip of social services. Simon was working as a full-time manager of a fast-food restaurant when she was offered an opportunity to participate in a research project which paid twice as much an hour, which allowed her to reduce her work schedule and go back to high school.

The project enlisted girls who were on probation as young researchers to understand how social services failed young people at the margins. Being part of a community of inquiry excited her.

Three-and-a-half  years after joining the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD) in San Francisco as an outreach worker for the organization’s Street Survival program, Simon became CYWD's executive director.  She was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2003, the youngest woman to receive the award. She recently earned a bachelor's degree from Mills College in Oakland. 

Simon told FLI conference attendees that each of the colleges they represented is “more powerful than winning one of those genius grants” because their institutions provide them with a community and a platform. She also told them that while they may be first in their families to attend these institutions, it was their responsibility to ensure they would not be the last. She acknowledged that questions about belonging are normal.

“You are sitting in the seat that you not only have worked for, but that it is yours. …You are the manifestation of your grandmother’s prayers in her deepest and darkest moment.”

Dereca Blackmon in a session with admministrators

Looking ahead

In closing the conference, Dereca Blackmon, director of the DGen Office, praised Macato and Oberholzer for their work as co-chairs of the conference, referring to them as the “lifeblood.”

“I have worked with Ian and John R. on so many things. They have done this with an incredible heart and grace and love.”

Macato said he was inspired by the collaborative efforts that laid the groundwork for the conference.

“I am inspired to continue working in the national movement for FLI students, supporting them from the moment they are accepted to graduation and beyond. I think we built a great deal of momentum between DGen, FLIP and LSP on collaboratively supporting the FLI community, and this momentum will help us in the endeavor to secure an official space for the FLI community as well.” said Macato. “For me, this conference provided me with a renewed sense of excitement about continuing to advocate for initiatives which will better support FLI students and the communities that we come from.” 

All photos courtesy of Michael Spencer

Top: Lateefah Simon

Center: Ian Macato, left, with John R. Oberholzer; Jennifer Rolen; Anthony "Tony" Jack

Botton: Dereca Blackmon, center, with administrators