Being a first generation student

A look at the expectations, challenges, and opportunities

Last Monday, a group of about 40 students gathered in Twenty Chimneys for a seemingly normal evening meal. From the outside, it looked like any other student group event with free food. In reality, these students shared one very personal experience: they were first-generation (FG) students.

MIT defines FG students as those who will be the first in their family to graduate from a four-year college. They make up 16 percent of MIT students, undergraduate and graduate — a percentage typical for private top-tier universities, yet about half that of the national average, said Miri E. Skolnik, assistant dean of Student Support Services (S3).

Being FG presents unique challenges to which non-FG students may not relate. Skolnik recalls the story of Alfred Lubano, an FG student who attended Columbia University in the mid-70s while his father worked as a bricklayer outside his son’s classrooms. Lubano and his father would sometimes ride the subway home together, Lubano with his books and his father with his equipment, without anything to talk about. “Related by blood, we’re separated by class, my father and I,” Lubano wrote in his article “Bricklayer’s Boy.”

Almost four decades later, stories of the challenges faced by first-generation students still exist across the nation, and MIT is no exception.

Ruben T. Alonzo ’11 has been one of several student advocates for the recently-established First Generation Project (FGP), a joint program between the UAAP and S3 to serve the FG community. Skolnik, the FGP’ sponsoring dean, and physics professor John W. Belcher, the FGP faculty sponsor, wrote an article titled “First Generation Project launched” for the January/February 2012 issue of the Faculty Newsletter. “It goes without saying that in spite of these circumstances, FG students possess tremendous resourcefulness, survival skills, initiative, and self-reliance,” Skolnik and Belcher wrote.

Part of their article included Alonzo’s compelling story as an FG student. Alonzo, who learned about MIT merely three weeks before the application deadline, was originally planning on joining the military straight out of high school to support his family of migrant farm workers in Crystal City, Texas. His visit during CPW was eye-opening: “When I visited MIT, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. Never in my life was I surrounded by so many intellectuals,” the article read.

After the CPW visit, he vowed to use his education to end the cycle of poverty in his family. “I had lost my father to drugs and my older brother was serving a six-year prison sentence,” Alonzo wrote. Once he arrived at MIT for his first semester, however, Alonzo was faced with a heart-wrenching situation.

“In only my second week of class during my freshman year, my mother delivered the news that she had been diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. Treatments required traveling to a cancer clinic 100 miles away from Crystal City, a trip she could barely afford. Without a father or older brother to rely on, the financial burden fell on my shoulders. After my freshman fall semester, I never purchased another textbook again, in order to send all of my money home to my family. The absence of textbooks never compared to the days I went hungry.”

Alonzo was awarded with the $30,000 Truman Scholarship in his junior year, which he used for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

After the award was announced, Skolnik sat Alonzo down for an informal discussion about life as an FG student. Alonzo shared stories of the days he went without food to send as much money home as possible, “Miri told me ‘you will be the catalyst for this internal dialogue for the first-generation community,’” he said.

“We had been thinking for a while that we needed to do more for first-generation students,” said Julie B. Norman, director of the UAAP and senior associate dean for the Department of Undergraduate Education (DUE).

Skolnik paired up with Norman to host an event on Feb. 17 last year, where about 30 FG students met for dinner. Provost L. Rafael Reif and Belcher both spoke about their experiences as FG students, but the keynote address came from Alonzo.

“Ruben really inspired me,” Luis A. Juárez ’13 said. “That really compelled me to know that there was a lot of potential in that group of students and that it was underrepresented, so I felt the need to do something about it.”

It was an emotional event and Skolnik said a lot of people were in tears throughout the dinner. It gave these faculty and students the opportunity to talk about the most personal aspects of their roots, including personal sacrifices and their wish to help lift their family. From the students’ feedback, it was clear that there was a real need for an ongoing program for FG students, Skolnik said.

The FG community longed for that “internal dialogue” Skolnik had envisioned with Alonzo earlier in the year, and the FGP was designed to fill that void.

A student advisory board was formed of Juárez, Melanie C. Adams ’13, Peter T. Nguyen ’14, and Melanie I. Alba ’13, who report to Norman, as the UAAP funds and sponsors the FGP. As the project’s scope came into focus, it was agreed that FGP would provide FG students with a sense of community and opportunity for networking, reduce their sense of isolation, and instill a sense of pride in their status as FG students.

“It feels great to be working with students sharing part of your background,” said Juárez, the president of the advisory board.

His first exposure to FGP was by pure chance: “I was just around in an Athena cluster and I saw the email [invitation to the first FGP dinner] and I was like ‘OK, that’s happening today, there’s food so why not go.’ I just showed up and it definitely changed my mind of things, first-generation-related.“

Nguyen, a member of the MIT Gymnastics team, is also the liaison for the MIT chapter of the Quest Scholars Network, a network of participating schools and student-finalists of the QuestBridge need-based scholarship program. According to him, about half of the applications he sees are from FG students.

The experience, he said, has been rewarding: “I thought it would be a great opportunity to give back to a program that has helped me get to where I am today.”

The student executive board wrote their own entry alongside Skolnik and Belcher’s FNL article, outlining their goals for the FGP. Their message was simple: “As the FGP Student Executive Board, we are dedicated to supporting and empowering all of the pioneering students breaking new ground in higher education.”

FG students face unique challenges

When students apply to MIT, they are asked to identify their parents’ highest level of education. The wording of this question is crucial, Skolnik said. “If MIT asked ‘Are you a first-generation student?’ many students wouldn’t know what that means. It’s not acknowledged as a salient part of their identity.”

“Getting to MIT is different from getting through MIT,” Skolnik said, citing the unique position in which FG students find themselves and their shared resourcefulness. For a number of reasons, “FG students are part of an invisible population that isn’t really talked about.”

First, FG status often overlaps with socioeconomic status. Many FG students send money home to help their families. Meanwhile, they might have roommates whose parents are CEOs, leading scientists, or wealthy physicians. “There’s somewhat of a stigma or sense of shame when surrounded by so many accomplished, educated individuals,” Skolnik said.

Before becoming involved in the FGP, said Juárez, “I never felt that I could talk freely to anyone about those subjects, about being FG, what it meant, things I had gone through to get here — those are just some of the things that you never touch upon with other people.”

Another reason for the hidden nature of this community is the FG students’ sense of isolation from both their peers at MIT and their family back home. “People don’t know who other FG students are,” Skolnik said. “There’s a perception that they’re the only one.”

Skolnik says a college education brings new concepts and cultures that are foreign to FG students’ families. How do you explain thermodynamics to a parent who only took algebra?

“My mom still confuses Yale with MIT,” said Andy J. Liang ’14, an opinion editor for The Tech.

“Once you’re actually here, you’re faced with a lot of homework and troubles. Your parents don’t usually understand why you need to pull an all-nighter and things like that,” Juárez said, adding that he had to face the question “why are you not getting all A’s anymore?” from his parents.

“They can’t truly know what it’s like because they’ve never been there. It’s not that they don’t want to be helpful, they really want to be helpful; they’re your parents. It’s just one of the things that they don’t have experience with,” he said.

Along with the isolation, Skolnik says FG students can experience a lot of pressure to succeed. According to Skolnik, “being the first in one’s family, often the first in one’s community, [to go to college] was a very rare, remarkable exception” for some students. With the front-page newspaper articles and special attention, “the community threw a virtual parade for these students.” Once FG students arrive at college, there’s an enormous sense of pressure to make their community proud.

“They don’t want to let people down,” Skolnik said.

Alban C. Cobi ’12 agrees. “I think non-FG students should know that FG students most of the time do not come from the same financial background as them, and they have a family at home that depends on their success because their family wants to see all the hard work and challenges they put up with over the years be worth it at the end,” Cobi said.

And it’s not just students who know what it’s like to be FG. History professor Craig S. Wilder, biology professor and Nobel Prize-winner Philip Sharp, Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill ’86, Associate Director of Admissions Matthew L. “Matt” McGann ’00, UAAP Associate Dean Donna L. Friedman, DUE Communications Manager Anna B. Klein, and physics professor and Nobel Prize Winner Frank Wilczek are just some of the current members of MIT faculty and staff who were FG students themselves.

Students at FGP dinner share moving stories

This past Monday, the theme to the FGP dinner was “Managing Family Responsibilities with Academics.” For more than an hour, the tables of FG students were alive with conversation. Through tears and laughter, students described what they had to overcome just to get into MIT.

During the event, Juárez stood at the front of the room to tell his story of being an FG student, something that he hasn’t shared with some of his closest friends.

In 2001, Juárez and his family moved from Mexico to Houston; he and his mother cleaned homes every Saturday morning. “I was happy, it was rewarding,” Juárez said. He was happy to help his mother, but couldn’t help but notice the peculiarity of his weekend routine.

“I began to realize my friends’ moms didn’t clean houses, ” he said.

The differences became more and more obvious. Juárez’ father, wearing work jeans, boots, and a hat from his job in construction, drove a Nissan ’95 pickup truck. Juárez says he felt ashamed when his dad would pick him up from school.

In his first semester at MIT, Juárez transitioned with relative ease. He tried out for varsity soccer and made the team, pledged a fraternity, and regularly attended Mass.

“Those things kept my body and mind busy,” Juárez told The Tech. “One of the things that I found here at MIT that was very good, very rewarding was the Tech Catholic Community, actually. That was a strong connection that I felt to back home.”

“And then the second semester, I felt it was more tough because soccer had ended and I came a week and a half early for work week because I had pledged a fraternity, so there was that time which I just had to do work, you know, and it was manual work, and I was like ‘I could be helping my family, … taking my grandma to get groceries, or my brother, I would take him to school,’ so I was like ‘why am I even here?’”

As he explained at Monday’s dinner, Juárez had tears in his eyes as he tried to explain his situation to a fellow fraternity brother. “I tried to make him see my point, but he couldn’t see it,” Juárez said.

Given the circumstances, however, FG students are exceptionally optimistic. “There’s a lot more I can do than I can’t,” said Liang.

“We were just working all the time,” Cameron S. McAlpine ’13 said about growing up in Oregon. He said his parents taught him from an early age that “in order to get anywhere in life, you need to do work.”

Being accepted into MIT was “such a far cry from anything else that had happened to my family,” McAlpine said. But once school started, he realized hard work alone doesn’t always guarantee success. “I felt bad asking for other people’s help. I felt guilty.” Despite his tough time adjusting to the workload, his parents remained calmly supportive. Together, they agreed that McAlpine’s priorities should lie in his academics, the varsity crew team, and his fraternity.

Cobi says working with his family helped him see beyond the lower income of his family members. In an email to The Tech, he noted: “I used to work with my uncles and cousins in construction when I was in high school and the work was burdensome and very tiring, but at the end of the day very rewarding. The work was real because at the end of a project we would see the results such as a wall, a set of new stairs, or a fence surrounding the whole house. My uncles did not attend college, yet they are still doing the type of work that’s really useful to society.

“The type of work I see people going into after college, and from my own internship experience, is nothing like what my family does. As a Course 2, for example, you’d have a job sitting in front of a computer modeling things, or managing bigger projects and attending meetings all day,” he said.

Melanie C. Adams ’13, a member of the FGP exec board, was first exposed to MIT during Interphase, a summer program hosted the Office of Minority Education designed for high-school students admitted to MIT. The transition was a difficult one: “I called home in tears almost every day. I hated the world,” Adams explained at Monday’s dinner.

Once at MIT, Adams vowed she would never ask her parents for money, and looked for a UROP to get an income. In her first off-campus job, she says she wanted to tell her employer “I think you guys paid me too much,” because she couldn’t believe what the paycheck said.

The feedback from FG students so far has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Skolnik. She said that FG students appreciate that the FGP gives FG students the opportunity to feel like part of a community for once and to share stories that they kept silent.

In its first year, the project has certainly started an important conversation within the FG community, but there’s more work to be done. “I think FG project is a great idea, they just need to reach out to other FG students. There’s way more FG students at MIT, and I think reaching out to them would be great,” Cobi said in an email to The Tech.

cristen \'10 over 11 years ago

The FGP sounds like a great idea. I wish it had been around a few years ago, but so I'm glad current students get to benefit.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

Wonderful article, eye-opening. Thank you.

CM over 11 years ago

This is a great piece. The Tech needs to do more stories like this one, that discover beneath-the-surface trends/themes and incorporate actual reporting. Less press-release style announcements and recaps of the same predictable events happening year after year. Kudos to the author.

Alejandra Enriquez over 11 years ago

It is very important to be aware of how difficult it is for FG students to succeed. My father was a FG College student in Mexico, the youngest out of seven brothers and sisters, these students give up so much in order to accomplish their goal, all FG students struggle. We should never forget how difficult it was for them to succeed. We tend to do so because they were able to make our lives easier. All my respect for FG students.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

I'm grateful these "FG" students have this support system developing for them and those that come after them, but I can't help but resent having so much help out of high school, graduate with a Bachelor's degree and then pushed out into the real world without a clue on how to land the job I was educated for.