By Trapetas McGill
To Princeton Sophomore David Lopera, Princeton University’s manicured campus seemed such a world away from his native East Boston that he almost didn’t apply. “I was obviously scared. Nervous. I had my doubts. I anticipated wealth,” he said. Little did this 19-year-old son of migrant Colombians know, he wasn’t alone. When he got to New Jersey last fall, he joined a growing number of Princeton students with exactly the same worries.
Now, Lopera is a member of Princeton’s Hidden Minority Council (PHMC), a group founded in 2013 to raise awareness about first-generation college students on campus and the challenges they face. While Princeton covers students’ full financial aid, says PHMC treasurer Melana Hammel, “it doesn’t bridge the gap.” Socioeconomic status can have huge effects on low-income students’ experiences on campus. “[The PHMC is about] building an understanding,” Hammel says. And the group, which won Princeton’s 2016 Martin Luther King award for community service, is only getting started.
PHMC has already launched a number of initiatives, including a campaign designed to make the opinions and faces of the first-generation community known through posters with students’ names and photos. Hammel also has plans to start a textbook exchange program and a coat drive next fall.
While the university’s financial aid may cover tuition and meal plans, it sometimes falls short on students’ other needs. Hammel has a low-income friend who once had to send $500 home, and students can also battle with other hidden costs. “If you’re coming from California, you might need a coat… There’s so many things going on below the surface that the personal money can go to,” says Hammel.
Thomas Dunne, deputy dean of undergraduate students at Princeton, proudly rattles off the assistance Princeton offers to lower income students. “Princeton has the best financial aid in the Ivies,” he said, smiling widely and listing off grants for study abroad programs, emergency admission funds and a “personal endowment” that covers things like books and holiday travel. He’s got a point. Sixty percent of Princeton students receive financial aid, and eighty-three percent of seniors graduate debt-free. While he admits that financial aid isn’t always enough, he argues that “it’s hard for a student to fall through the cracks.”
But that’s exactly what the Hidden Minority Council says is happening. “When you’re at the dining hall,” Hammel says, “you can’t tell whose parents didn’t go to college. It’s not as obvious as [with] other minority groups.” In other words, HMC says, the concerns of first-generation students often go unnoticed.
A student’s socioeconomic status doesn’t correlate with low academic standing at Princeton, so the group is more about community than studying. First generation students—just like everybody else—have to express their woes and create change, but when you can’t put a face to the group, how do you start a conversation? Lopera cites an example of the time he wanted to reserve a room for a Latino dance club and was rejected. “They need to work on listening to us,” he says.
“College is an abstract institution,” says Dunne. Princeton’s Hidden Minority Council is helping one group of students become better defined.