First Generation Students Unite

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College sophomore Collin Loughead, a steamfitter’s son, came to Penn from Northeast Philadelphia. Senior Cheyenne Rogers came from Naples, Florida, where she attended a well-regarded public high school that served a mostly affluent student body. Leanne Huebner W’90 grew up on a horse farm in New Jersey’s poorest county. It would be hard to find a great deal that they have in common, but one thing stands out: each identifies as a first-generation college student.

All three are also involved in a new student group called Penn First, which was founded last year to build community among and advocate for first-generation and low-income students. Roughly 150 undergraduates have joined the group, which was modeled after similar organizations at Harvard and Columbia universities, according to Loughead, a board member in charge of alumni outreach.

So far, Penn First has largely focused on making its members visible to one another, the administration, and the campus in general. Since the University instituted an all-grant, no-loan financial aid policy in 2007, an increasing number of first-generation and low-income students have matriculated. According to federal data, the number of Pell Grant recipients at Penn has risen by over 60 percent in that time; they now account for roughly 16 percent of the student body. Yet when it comes to navigating both campus culture and Ivy League academics, many of them feel like they’re
sailing solo.

“There was a lot of effort to recruit us, and to get us to Penn,” says Rogers, a communications major who is minoring in urban education. “But once we got here there wasn’t a whole lot of information about how you access resources and navigate college life. So it was difficult to feel like you belong here when you’re just kind of plopped down and expected to figure everything out by yourself, especially when you don’t have parents to call.”

Rogers’ parents—a longtime security guard and a supermarket cashier who lost her job as a law firm receptionist during the recession—were supportive, just inexperienced. And her older brother served as a reminder that getting into college isn’t the same thing as making it through. He attended the University of South Carolina on a football scholarship, but left after two years without a degree.

Rogers says that Penn First is mostly focused on small-bore changes aimed at tailoring existing resources more closely to the needs of first-generation and low-income students. For example, as a freshman she felt like she immediately got lost in Penn’s academic advising system, when the adviser assigned to her went on sabbatical.

“I have never met my academic advisor to this day,” she says. “Because when he came back, he was just like, ‘We can just contact each other by email.’” In the meantime, she felt like she needlessly floundered in some poorly selected courses, waited too long to investigate tutoring options, and lacked insight into a question as straightforward as how much dropping a course would set her back.

One of Penn First’s initiatives has been forming “mentoring families” in which upperclassmen can advise freshmen and sophomores, about everything from academic issues to the unpredictable ways college life can complicate family and social dynamics back at home for first-generation students. The group is currently trying to identify first-generation alumni who might be interested in extending that mentoring network.

Huebner, a member of the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women and co-founder of Minds Matter, a college-preparatory nonprofit that serves low-income high-school students, has been an early champion for the group.

“A lot of first-generation students report loneliness and alienation,” she says. “And depending on where you went to high school, you may have some academic preparation gaps. And you might not really be able to understand that’s going on at the time.”

Asking for help—or even being aware that it exists—can be an obstacle for students who grew up in resource-strapped settings. “Typically, there’s a do-it-yourself kind of attitude among first-generation students, a self-reliance,” Huebner says. “And first-generation students often need to be made comfortable” with simply seeking assistance when they need it.

The group would like to establish a presence at New Student Orientation to spread awareness of its mentoring program and events like a recent student panel on “My Biggest Mistake Freshman Year.”

Loughhead says his biggest mistake was “not putting myself out there enough, socially, as a freshman.” In a social atmosphere shaped significantly by fraternities and sororities—whose annual dues can run to four figures—he “just kind of latched onto a few people rather than try to expand my friend group.” Like many of his peers, he went on to discover a lot of diversity in campus social life, but wishes he’d gotten an earlier start.

Rogers’ involvement with the Netter Center and Alpha Phi Omega, a service-oriented fraternity, has fostered many friendships, but she says Penn First “is the first time where I really feel like I have a community that I can turn to. I know a lot of people go to different cultural centers, but I just never connected with any of those, especially being biracial.”

“Not all first-generation and low-income students are minorities,” she points out. But they do share a common experience. “Being able to talk about this with people who get it, and to formulate words that describe your struggles, makes it a lot easier to explain to people who might not understand, or don’t have a similar background,” she says. “It helps you to be open with other people.”

On a campus where students of all backgrounds often feel a pressure to appear unflappable, Penn First members say there’s a lot to gain from opening up.

Jamie-Lee Josselyn C’05 is a first-generation alumna who lives in Hill House as a house fellow. “Depending on where a particular student lands socially here, the assumption of what’s a reasonable price for something—whether it’s dinner on a Friday night or Spring Break plans—can be a little too much for someone who’s trying to support themselves financially,” she says.

Penn is big enough to provide many social paths, she adds, so it’s not as though money is a prerequisite for full engagement. “But I know that it can be stressful if everyone on your freshman hall is taking someone out to a birthday dinner, and it’s going to cost $30 or $40 a person because you’re going to nicer place, and that’s just not going to be an option. Or some student will make that an option at the expense of some other responsibility. So that can get tricky.” If Penn First can help foster a greater awareness of the financial limitations first-generation students face—or even just help those students strike the right balance—that would be an achievement.

“When I was a student here, I spent a lot of hours working at a couple different work-study jobs,” Josselyn reflects. “And I was perfectly happy doing that, although in retrospect I think maybe I worked a little too much, and could have perhaps used more advice around how I was balancing things out.”

Rogers sounds a similar note. “I believe in having a little bit of a struggle. I think that experience probably helped me later on in some ways, to be more independent and self-sufficient,” she says of her challenging entry into University life. “But at the same time, in some ways a student should just be able to be a student.”

“The great thing,” says Huebner, “is that the University is so well endowed, and has so many resources, that these small tweaks really aren’t going to change the dime for the University, but they may change somebody’s experience when they’re here.”

She thinks that Penn First is poised to become a “marketing tool” for Penn. “A lot of these first-generation, low-income students who are highly talented are being recruited like athletes,” she says, citing one young man in her Minds Matter program who was accepted at 22 out of the 23 schools to which he applied.

“If we take care of these students, they’re going to help us get more of these amazing students,” she says. “And I truly believe that a student who comes here from a first-generation background, who is able to make it [in life] partially because of their association with Penn, is going to be a really giving person when they come back. Because they realize that’s their big Hollywood break, in a way.

“When I look across all the forks in my life, I’ve had great things happen to me,” she reflects. “And it all started at Penn.”

Which gives her something else in common with her Penn First peers.

“I absolutely love Penn,” Rogers effuses. “Until the day I die I will say how grateful I am to this institution.”

Josselyn laughs in concurrence. “Look at me,” she says. “I haven’t left. I’m not a big donor—but I’ve stayed, working, 10 years after graduation.” —T.P.

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