‘You can’t tell whose parents have money’: the story of first-generation students

By Angela Loyola
Stony Point, NY

There’s a minority group at Princeton that isn’t constrained to one gender, race or religion. They walk around campus unseen. The university claims their well-being is a significant priority—but some students say the school isn’t doing enough.

Low-income and first-generation students don’t fit the traditional definition of a minority, but many of these students still feel stigmatized on campus.

“When you walk around campus…you can’t tell whose parents have money,” said Melana Hammel, rising sophomore. Hammel is the co-chair and treasurer of the Princeton Hidden Minority Council, which aims to give this invisible minority a voice.

The council’s vision statement says it works to “extinguish the stigma associated with being a first-generation or low-income student.” Established in 2013, the PHMC publicizes their existence on campus and serves as a network for these students, some of whom say they feel left behind.

In 2014, looking to raise awareness of first-generation and low-income students, the PHMC created its first-ever “Thoughts Campaign,” an initiative highlighting the unique challenges faced by members of the hidden minority. The social media campaign, which is now an annual event, features a photo of a student accompanied by a personal story. In a photo and caption posted on Facebook, rising freshman Eric Sklanka describes the gap between his home and the Princeton community, while graduate student Joel Martinez shares a similar struggle: “I worry about the ever-increasing identity gap between my family and I.”

But the council isn’t just about awareness. The council also works closely together on projects to aid the hidden minority throughout college. One current initiative is a textbook exchange library, which would allow students to exchange expensive textbooks to relieve financial burdens.

First-generation and low-income students, the PHMC leadership says, are less likely to ask for help. This “idea to keep your head down” is prevalent among these students, Hammel said. PHMC programs, like the textbook exchange, are meant to provide assistance for students who face socioeconomic challenges.

The council also works with university officials to advance their agenda. Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne says Princeton representatives annually attend the 1vyG conference, a gathering of first-generation students at different colleges, to listen and address the “different issues that face first-generation students.”

However, some PHMC members say the university doesn’t understand low-income and first-generation students. Rising freshman David Lopera, a member of the council, says the administration doesn’t listen well enough.

“They aren’t sympathetic,” he said. “The people in power that could change it don’t have the sympathy or background to do it.”

Hammel also criticized the “lack of administration understanding on the mental health” aspect of being a first-generation student.

Lopera noted the stigma of being a hidden minority in the PHMC’s Thought Campaign. “My identity as a first-gen student at an Ivy League school means that I carry the weight of my past, the feelings of inadequacy and doubts of my future but standing just as tall as anyone else,” he said.

For Lopera, the fight for the hidden minority goes beyond campus.

“America is changing,” he says. “So is Princeton.”

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