First-generation Princeton students speak out

By Anahi Figueroa and Jesus Lino
Commerce City, CO and Los Angeles, CA

At the country’s most selective colleges, all first year students commence their college experience in the same way. Armed with over-packed suitcases, they stroll through a manicured lawn passing a medieval Harry Potter-style library to arrive at their empty dorm. After sliding their freshly minted I.D’s, they open the door to new faces with differing backgrounds. They all arrive to the room in the same fashion, yet the subtext of their past experiences shapes their new ones. Whether you’re the daughter of a farmer or the son of a Wall Street shark, your upbringing shapes how you navigate in a new environment. For first-generation and low-income students at Princeton University, their backgrounds can present unique obstacles for maneuvering their education, especially without support from family or the administration.

While administrators believe that Princeton University is doing a marvelous job in assisting first-generation students, some students say that a lot of work still needs to be done.

First-generation and low-income students often feel intimidated leaving their comforting community to join a campus with many students from privileged backgrounds. “I mean when I came in, I was scared; I didn’t know how to react,” says David Lopera, a first-generation student at Princeton from Boston, who identifies as Latino and just finished his Freshman year. He was surprised by the material goods, like cars, that his classmates possessed and that he could never afford. He also found it harder than many of his peers to find support from his parents, who hadn’t gone to college. “You can’t ask your parents about college tips,” he says. He found fellow students to be “genuine and kind,” but he also suffered from a lack of confidence because he never expected to get into a college like Princeton. “My biggest enemy was myself,” he says.

That’s why he joined The Princeton Hidden Minority Council, a resource initiated by students to help low-income and first-generation students walk out of the shadows. The program is designed to help students feel empowered and flourish socially. It does so by creating a close community environment, and “sharing the stories of lower-income and first-generation college students at Princeton,” wrote Emily Aronson of Princeton’s Office of Communications.

Meeting weekly, the council’s members split up into committees to work on different kinds of projects. The “Thoughts Campaign,” for example, involved first-generation students creating portraits of themselves with quotes about their experiences, and placing them around campus. For example, Faith Garcia, a dark-haired girl pictured sitting between two Gothic pillars, wrote: “When I got into Princeton I didn’t like to tell people because so many of the responses were ‘It’s because you’re Mexican and a girl’ or ‘It must be nice to get extra consideration for being poor.’ It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I worked just as hard as everyone else to get here and it’s something I still struggle with.”  The project generates awareness, Lopera says, triggering students with advantages to think: “Oh wow, this is what they’re going through.”

Administrators and faculty are proud of the support they offer low-income students, particularly financial aid. “Princeton has the best financial aid across the Ivy league,” says Thomas Dunne, the deputy dean of undergraduate students. Princeton was the first Ivy League school to replace student loans with grants, and 20 percent of the incoming Freshman class is first-generation. When asked about Princeton’s retention policies for first-generation students, Dunne said they were not necessary because “it’s hard for [Princeton] students to fall through the cracks.”

Students feel differently. Melana Hammel, co-chair and treasurer of the Minority Council and a computer science major, says the financial aid at Princeton is not enough. Currently, the Minority Council is working with the financial aid office to remove the hidden cost of moving to campus for certain students. Also, the council is planning to create a textbook library where students can check out books for free because they can be expensive—some can cost up to $400—and they aren’t automatically covered by financial aid.

Financial assistance is not the only resource that low-income students need, say students. Lopera says the university administration could be more “empathetic” towards minority groups. Many first-generation students struggle because they feel disconnected from home. Some experience a backlash from their family, who may express resentment toward them for opportunities they receive, explains Lopera. Hammel says these first-generation students also struggle internally, and still aren’t always advocating for the guidance they need. She points out that these students are less likely to go to professors’ office hours, for example. “This idea of [asking for] help isn’t [ingrained] in first-generation students,” she said.

But despite his frustrations about the university’s lack of action on behalf of low-income students, Lopera is hopeful. “We are close to a turning point,” he says. “America as a whole is demographically changing…and so is Princeton.”

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