The Indy interviews the Harvard First Generation Student Union.
Seniors Daniel Lobo of Quincy and Jesse Sanchez of Adams sat down with the Indy to discuss the formation, motivation, and mission behind the Harvard First Generation Student Union. They hope the group will gain official recognition this semester, but that’s not their only goal. From supporting first gens on campus to promoting educational access across the nation, HFGSU hopes their group will foster “a movement that’s going to change Harvard for the better.”
Indy: Can you tell me about yourselves and what motivated you to start the Harvard First Generation Student Union?
Daniel Lobo: I’m originally from East Boston, Massachusetts, and I currently live in Lynn, Massachusetts. What makes me first gen is that both my parents immigrated to the states from Cape Verde in the late 1980s, and for a variety of reasons associated with the immigrant experience weren’t able to graduate high school. Throughout my schooling, that always served as my motivation: the fact that my parents weren’t able to achieve a level of education they hoped for. So I was sort of their last hope in that regard. I was always super motivated in high school, and I remember applying to Harvard, looking at brochures, and realizing that there might be students like me going to a place like Harvard given the robust financial aid policy. And I remember getting here and realizing that despite the fact that people looked like me, they weren’t really like me at all. And so that largely defined my freshman year: that feeling of being out of place or feeling inadequate and being in an environment different than anything I was used to.
Aside from the fact that I was the first in my family to go to college, this was the first time I was in an area of concentrated wealth or that I was having to have intellectual conversations all the time. Just given my environment, I was used to turning that part of myself on at school and turning it off with my friends, so this idea of residential learning and always wanting to take advantage of the variety of thoughts and experiences that I was surrounded by was really difficult for me.
I never really came to terms with the fact that I was a first gen student until the end of my sophomore year. That’s when I was thinking about how rather than viewing it as a deficit, it was just an alternative form of social capital that I brought to Harvard and could use to educate people and to empower my own education. I stayed in touch with my freshman advisor, who was at the Bureau of Study Counsel, and she tapped me into some conversations the administration was having about first gens. I started meeting other first gen students, which was awesome, because I’d never known how to identify another first gen. So the first few meals I had with the other people that I got in touch with through these conversations were just amazing. It was the first time when we were talking about things that we had all understood and experienced. It just feels good to know there are people on campus who went through similar things to you even though you can’t find them as easily.
I came up with the idea for a student group that could more easily facilitate this idea of peer support, networking, and allowing a means for first gen students to self-identify themselves. Through the people I’d met, we came together to form this founding board, and now we’re seeking official recognition this semester, which is really exciting.
Jesse Sanchez: I was born and raised in City Heights, San Diego. It’s the probation capital of San Diego County, and it’s also made up of five of the seven densest census tracks in all of the county in a pretty small space. Three percent of the residents have college degrees, so it’s a place that one might call the inner city, an under-resourced community, etc. So coming from that experience to Harvard is definitely a bit of a culture shock, as Dan described. Just coming into a place that’s so distinct in its cultural elements: the way people dress, how much money people had, and how obvious that was in certain habits, like fancy meals, fancy clothes, and a lot of salmon colored shorts. It was really interesting for me to come to Harvard and try to find a place where I felt like all my identities were most supported and that I was able to connect with others.
My mom was born in Mexico, and she came over to the U.S., where I was born in San Diego, California, and for some of the reasons Dan mentioned as well as some structural issues, she never finished high school. She was a farm laborer in Mexico and since she has come to the U.S., she cleans houses — an honest day’s work. So one thing that I find really empowering about this movement is that it provides a space for an identity on campus that is so prevalent and is so important for this campus to recognize as well as providing a welcoming space for a lot of us. It’s also a way to create this space of understanding: understanding between classes, between races, between different people on campus. Because when I got here, there were a lot of different parts of my identity that I was able to continue exploring: I’m Latino, so I’m involved in all the different cultural groups here, as well as a lot of organizations revolving around education and youth empowerment. But when it came down to really finding a support community for what it means to be first gen, that was really lacking.
My junior year I started a series focused on first generation college students through social media as a way to empower the youth I’ve worked with in past programs, and that evolved to include a lot of the first generation college students on campus. So when I was doing that, I got to learn a lot about what it means to be first gen and this identity’s important role in empowerment. One thing I love about the first gen community is that it intersects with so many different narratives. Dan and I share immigrant narratives in our families, I can definitely relate to a number of people from the Latino community, friends from the Black community who have very similar experiences, but also those who come from generations in the U.S. I think that one great thing the first gen movement we’re trying to start here is that it is bringing people from throughout campus to rally around this idea of equal access to opportunity and also inter-class, inter-race, inter-identity dialogue.
Indy: Thank you so much. I think that’s great, especially to address people feeling left out or isolated. I think Harvard can be hard enough, and to have another thing on top of it can be overwhelming.
Can you speak to the representation of first-gens on campus? Or you can touch on the problem of identification that you discussed: namely, how hard it is to tell who is first gen.
DL: I think the main problem on campus is that there’s not a way for first gen students to self-identify. The fact is that this campus is apparently 13% first gen, and the incoming freshman class is more like 18%. There’s a substantial number of us here. The problem is that we don’t know each other and don’t have any means to find out. That is inherently because it’s not something that comes to surface, but I think what can support and facilitate a process of self-identifying was if there was more institutional recognition of first gens. I think a student group is a first step in that direction. Incoming freshman, when looking at the list of student organizations, will see a first-gen group on there, have that identity in their mind, and know that it’s represented on campus. But it also comes up when you think that a lot of our peer institutions like Stanford, Dartmouth, and Georgetown are doing a lot more institutionally with first gens, whether that’s the bridge programs for first gens who aren’t as well prepared from high school, whether it’s an office of diversity and inclusion, whether it’s an office of multicultural affairs that takes care of programming for first gens. We were just over at MIT on Saturday talking to their first gen group and their group is an extension of the office of undergraduate education. It’s not really a student group. So they’re actually identifying incoming freshman as first gen based on their parents’ level of education as listed on their application, informing them about the group, and inviting them to come to this group’s programming. So there are steps that the university can take and make it easier for first gens to self-identify in addition to what we’re doing as a student group. That’s the biggest thing: we’re not going to build a community if we don’t know who each other are.
JS: There are three points on this idea of underrepresentation: the first, as Dan described, is that there’s no way to know if a person is first gen. That can be a factor that can result in isolation between different groups. You come in and have this experience of “Whoa, this is Harvard?” and you’ve never even visited a campus before. And then when you get here you don’t speak out on these experiences because you feel out of place. Everyone else around you knows what’s up, everyone else looks like they know how to act and what college means to them. Their parents have gone to college, their family has gone to college for generations: this is what is expected of them. For some, not all, first gens, of course — the first gen experience is very diverse — these expectations of going to college may not have been as concrete as for others. So the first point is that not having a place to identify and speak up with other first gens could lead to isolation. By creating this space, a first gen student group is hoping to create a point of connection for so many people here on campus that want to pitch in and learn the perspectives of other first gens.
The second point is that our group is trying to defeat the stigma that might be associated with our parents not going to college. When I was a freshman, a lot of my friends would ask, “What does your mom do?” or “Where did your mom go to college?” or even “Where did your dad go to college?” and I don’t know who that guy is, he’s not even a part of my life. So that was kind of weird, as was describing having my mom be the head of my family and the fact that she cleans houses and the fact that she has a sixth or seventh grade education, because where she’s from, she was in the fields working since age four or five. So this organization wants to create a space where we can defeat the stigma and acknowledge the strength that it took to get to this point as first generation college students. We need to promote the idea that first gens are pioneers and that it’s a very positive characteristic. It’s a beautiful bit of social capital we bring to the table.
The third point is to acknowledge the diversity of the first gen experience. If we think the first gen experience is this one thing — our own experience as a first gen — then I think we’re missing a lot of these other experiences: people with immigrant families, people from rural areas, people who come here from a different country to get their education. I think this organization is trying to do a lot of things with respect to underrepresentation, but those three things highlight our main goals.
Indy: What unique challenges do you think first gen students experience? You’ve talked about some of those already, but can you think of some specific examples, perhaps from your own experiences?
JS: I think coming to such a new place when we don’t have other people we can really relate to, so the idea of being a first gen — and I’m only speaking to my own experience — a lot of my friends in high school didn’t go to college. They’re all first generation college students, but going to community college or working, so coming to a place like this was not an experience I shared with many of my friends. I didn’t have anyone to call to ask, “Hey, how’s your freshman year going?” I think my leaving for college actually created a bit of isolation back home, because no one else had gone to college. So when I got back to San Diego, some people would say things like, “You think that because you go to Harvard,” or “You don’t know what this is like anymore because you went to this really fancy rich place.” So that’s one example. A second is coming to a place like the Northeast, especially speaking to my own experience and the part of San Diego that I come from, it’s very different than the culture here. So my style of dress, my way of speaking, my own perspective on the world was just very different, and then also, considering that my mother was unable to get a college education, we weren’t able to have the same kind of life as many of my peers have had, so my perspective was also different in that way. I had never traveled outside the country, I had never been on a family vacation to a resort or a theme park or whatever, so there were these really basic cultural differences that in my experience seemed to have created a bit of distance when I first got here.
DL: My first inclination is to pose some sort of academic difficulty I had, but I feel like that’s a common experience of a lot of people who come here whether or not they’re first gen. I think the support system is a little different, but I try not to use that as my primary example of a first gen difficulty. What I experienced was a lot of what Jesse was talking about. I remember specifically last summer I was on campus and my parents came in to have dinner with me one night. I was teaching during that time, so I had a lot of ideas going through my head. When I was having dinner with my parents, they were talking about something ridiculous my neighbor had done or something like that, and I had this epiphany at the dinner table that I’m never going to be able to have an intellectual conversation with my parents. And I remember getting really upset by it: thinking that I was growing so much in this place but I can literally feel myself leaving them behind. It’s this idea of a new language, this new way of thinking and speaking, and it’s like you’re losing the old ways of speaking and the old means of communication that you had before getting here. And that’s really hard. I think that I didn’t do as good of a job through my college career to try to keep the two as close together as possible, and that came with other difficulties with being first gen. I remember to this day conversations with my mom, even though I tell myself not to get upset by them kind of upset me, because of how basic they are. She calls me, asks me how I’m doing, and I say I’m fine and then that’s sort of it. I can’t go into details like I had this class and this really interesting point was brought up by one of my peers. We can’t talk about that. That’s just further facilitated this disconnect. And it’s hard to be reminded that as a first gen that you’re cursed with being a code-switcher, you have to know how to cross these cultures and you have to be okay with that. That’s something I never thought about coming in that was particularly traumatizing for me.
JS: Just on the point of having to code-switch as a curse: I think it’s an additional strength.
DL: Yes — it’s definitely a positive. It was just personally challenging for me.
JS: I think that it being a challenge is definitely true. Though I think we should also look at it in a different light, as it in the long run provides a means for us to connect to others in a new way and a more understanding way. I think it’s also important to emphasize — particularly when discussing these issues with family — that the reason these issues exist is because our parents never had access to the resources we do now. Something I always try to stress about my mother — my mother is one of the smartest people I’ve met in my whole life, even at Harvard. Because my family and a lot of other people, because they never had access to these resources or these opportunities, this distance is occurring. This brings up a really important point that we’ve already touched on, but one of our goals as the first gen organization is to encounter, acknowledge, and respect the variety and individuality of the first gen experiences.
Indy: Can you speak to some of the advantages of being first gen at Harvard?
JS: The first is this ability to cross between different cultures and different kinds of people and the ability to do so seamlessly. The second is that one of the best ways to grow is to experience a new environment. So I think that coming to a place like Harvard, which is definitely a new environment, you get to understand, or at least try to understand, how you act in this new space and how you develop in this new space while stimulated by all these new, awesome things that are at Harvard. It creates an incredible perspective on ourselves and on our actions in relation to other people and other situations. To see people experience such immense growth in such little time is one of the biggest benefits.
DL: Experiencing that growth is huge — I’m reminded of it every time I go on Facebook and see people I know from back home who got a new job at the mall or something like that. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but I have to check myself and say, look, I’m at Harvard, and there are some people my age who are excited about getting a job at the mall. In terms of a tangible benefit, for me at least, humility is huge, and I think that’s something that can be lacking at this institution. And so I feel that I try to keep my experiences under a veil of humility, because it makes me appreciate everything a lot more. Because I know that given one change in my past, I wouldn’t have access to any of this. So I think that’s really important for me personally.
I also think another benefit is just the grit and self-motivation and resourcefulness that first-gens all have. In telling people about this group, especially non-first gens, I’ve had multiple conversations with people who can’t imagine not being set up to be here. They had the type of schooling and upbringing that set them up to be at a place like Harvard, and they can’t imagine being here without that. And so I think it’s hard because I don’t like to make it sound like we’re putting ourselves up on a pedestal above other people who are just as deserving to be here, but it is a huge accomplishment to get to a place like Harvard as a first gen. Our first try at college, we hit the top target. That’s huge. And it’s something that most people don’t have the kind of lives where they have to demonstrate that sort of grit. It’s hard to teach motivation. So when someone gets it, it’s such a transferrable skill, and that’s huge.
JS: Just to add on to the first point I had about interacting with diverse communities, I think that when you think about the idea of going to Harvard, getting that degree, and having access to all these resources, I think the benefit of that experience is the ability to impact and inspire those who are younger than you to create social change. One amazing benefit the first gen community has is the ability to make social change. We can often work with communities that others who haven’t lived those experiences are trying to go out and help and do amazing things for, and we have a unique experience in that we come from those places and can inspire those who might be the first in their families to go to college and create those avenues for the young people. Because we come from those experiences, we can acknowledge that when we see someone like that friend posting about getting a job at the supermarket, etc., we understand that they haven’t had the opportunity to reach a place like Harvard because the structure is set up so there are huge barriers to entry. And we can come from a place of understanding and faith for those people.
Indy: Do you think first gens have different concerns as freshman than as seniors? Do you have thoughts of what those first feelings of excitement and intimidation turn into as the college career continues and nears an end?
JS: I think the transition is very different. As a freshman, it takes time to feel comfortable and make this place a home where you can learn to grow and a place where you feel well situated. By the time you get to senior year, you’ve been through the ropes and you’ve gotten to this point where you feel more comfortable, hopefully you feel at home, and it is a time for you to come into your element. One of the main objectives that HFGSU has is trying to make that transition even smoother, more efficient, and more supported, so first gens can get to the point that we are at senior year much earlier, discover new potentials, and do even greater things with that amazing grit and drive that first gens all have.
As a senior, when we’re looking for jobs and career advice, now that we have all these resources and eventually a Harvard degree, just having to decide what kind of career we want to follow is something that oftentimes is something I’m unable to go to my mom for. I can’t go to her and ask her how to format my resume or ask her if she knows any doctors or anyone in the finance industry. Also, it means something to me to be able to understand what it means to be first gen and graduating from an institution like Harvard, both in terms of what that means on a bigger scale and to me as an individual. What does that mean to me and my community and to all of those who I could potentially help or to successes I’m going to see in the coming years. That’s going to be a beautiful moment.
DL: One experience that I had freshman year speaks to evolving in the first gen experience. It also relates to a conversation our board had on Sunday that is largely unfinished, or maybe we just have very different perspectives. I think it’s a testament to the variety of experiences that are part of the first gen identity. For me personally, I think it was really easy for me to vilify those of an upper class when I first got here, and seeing that things like salmon colored shorts are glorified or that being in a final club is seen as at the top of the social hierarchy or other things that weren’t part of my value system, it was easy for me to feel that I was better than that and think that I wasn’t going to try to adhere to that set of values. But over the course of my education here and meeting a lot of amazing people who are from the upper class and that there are still things to be learned from those people was something that I’ve learned through the process. Something that I think about a lot in forming this group is that I never want it to turn into an us-versus-them mentality.
Another thing that I’m experiencing senior year that I didn’t think about at all freshman year what my relationship with my parents is going to look like after graduation as dictated by my career. I did the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, and I decided that I don’t want to be a teacher, and a large part of it related to the fact that I can’t really explain to my parents that I went to Harvard and now I’m going to become a teacher. I just haven’t figured out how to do that, and I feel like there would be a whole lot of misunderstanding going on if I did. And that’s something to have to explain to people who aren’t first gen. I’m lucky enough to have a job offer that satisfies my own motivations and the expectations of my parents, and with my parents, it’s never explicit, they’re not telling me what to do because they know I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions, but it’s always in the back of my mind when I’m making these decisions. And I find myself not making certain decisions because of the way it might affect my parents. So that’s something I never thought about coming into the experience that I’ve found holds a lot of bearing on my own agency.
Indy: Any concluding remarks?
JS: Through creating this community on campus, we’re creating an opportunity to promote social change for those who strive to be first generation college students. I think that creating a strong community is going to be an amazing thing for those who look at Harvard and see that it’s not what they may have thought and that there are people here who have experiences they can relate to, maybe in concert with some of the other efforts on campus like the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program and Harvard Financial Aid Initiative. The Harvard College First Generation Student Union is going to create another way for others to become inspired and feel that Harvard is accessible, not only once you get here, but before you even start this college journey.
DL: I think we’re starting something huge. It’s something that’s going to change this university. That sounds like a kind of selfish thing to say as someone who’s starting the organization, but what makes me okay with saying that is that in what we’ve done so far, I’ve realized there’s a huge demand for this. Originally, this is something that I thought would be a great idea, but now I’m realizing that there are tons of people on this campus that want this and that need this. And the fact that we can meet their needs and support them while also creating this institutional change — I feel like we’re actually starting a movement. And it’s going to be a movement that’s going to change Harvard for the better.
Christine Wolfe ’14 (firstname.lastname@example.org) can’t wait to see what HFGSU has planned for the years ahead!