University News

First in the family: First-gen students navigate college obstacles

Socioeconomic status, academic ability among areas of concern for first-generation students

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
This article is part of the series Spring 2015 Student Polls

A March 2-3 Herald poll showed that first-generation students experience greater feelings of inadequacy than their peers in a variety of areas. Approximately 54 percent of first-generation students indicated they felt inadequate about their academic ability, compared to just 29 percent of other respondents. In addition, 45 percent of first-generation students reported feeling inadequate about their socioeconomic status, while only 12 percent of others indicated the same.

“These statistics are very legitimate,” said Isaiah Frisbie ’18, adding that he can relate to senses of incompetence and under-preparation.

“We do not know how to do college,” said Anthony Mei ’18. First-generation students need to learn how to appropriately study for midterms, manage time and adapt to campus life, he said. “We haven’t had prior experiences or any guidance.”

But the challenges of the first-generation experience entail more than just finding resources — they include overcoming an intimidation factor, Frisbie said. For example, many first-generation students encounter difficulty when choosing a concentration with little to no outside guidance.

“I do not know how to approach people for advice. I feel like I am bothering them,” said Heidy Mendez ’17.

As a first-year, Manuel Contreras ’16 was set on becoming an engineer after orientation — not because he liked it, but because a student “who looked like he knew what he was doing” told him to consider engineering. Contreras, a member of the Herald editorial page board, has since decided to pursue cognitive science.

Mendez, who is concentrating in health and human biology and plans to attend medical school after Brown, said these feelings of confusion and academic inadequacy are especially prevalent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. “In high school I was used to getting top grades, but coming here I had to get used to trying to maintain average grades,” she said.

These challenges expand past the classroom for some first-generation students, creating a disconnect between home and the University. “I had a hard time bridging home life and school life all together,” Mendez said.

“I wish I could tell (my parents) more about the things that go on in my life, but I fear that I am going to give them a wrong idea of what I am doing here,” Mendez said. For example, when Mendez consistently called home in the evenings before going to taekwondo practice, her parents became worried that she was dedicating too much time to a club rather than schoolwork. “That wasn’t the case,” she added.

“I did not have the language to discuss college with my parents,” Contreras said, adding that his family first heard about Brown from doctors who worked at the hospital where his mother cleans. 

Upon Contreras’ acceptance to Brown, his family attended an admitted students reception at an alum’s house in San Diego, California. “My dad joked that his first instinct would probably be, ‘Can I do the landscaping here?’” he said.

Contreras said his parents have never been able to visit campus.

Due to the significant intersection between first-generation students and low-income students, first-generation students often feel pressure to pursue more traditional concentrations, several students said.

“If I told my family I was studying archeology, they would ask: ‘What does that mean? What job can you get with that?’” Mei said, adding that many first-generation students grapple with their families’ expectations of financial success.

Going to college for many first-generation students is more than an attempt to get a good education — it is about trying to improve their families’ economic standings, said Guadalupe Morales ’15.

Posts on Brown University Class Confessions — a Facebook page that highlights experiences of students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds — portray many of the challenges first-generation students face, said the founder of the page, Michael, whose name has been changed due to confidentiality concerns.

Michael said he created the page because many students do not feel comfortable discussing class-related concerns with their friends for fear that “they would be looked at differently.” Confessions on the page include: “I don’t think I’ve actually had a real conversation about my socioeconomic background with anyone outside of Facebook” and “I feel awkward when I say I couldn’t do something because ‘I had work’ and people assume I mean homework instead of my actual job.”

Common concerns on the page include complicated relationships with friends and family from home, lack of openness with friends at Brown and culture shocks.

Herald poll data corroborates this trend of difficulty connecting with other Brown students. Twenty-six percent of first-generation students indicated they feel inadequate about their social lives, marking a slight but statistically significant uptick from the 18 percent for students whose parents have attended college.

While most Brown students come from families with college experience, the number of students identifying as first-generation has climbed significantly in recent years, said Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73. This increase is a function of amplified outreach by admission officers and greater awareness of Brown as an option on the part of prospective first-generation students, Miller said. Admission officers decide which locations to visit and forge relationships with the hope of reaching out to students who have not been historically well-represented, he added.

There are resources available on campus that address the statistic gap, provide guidance and help build community for first-generation students, wrote Dean of the College Maud Mandel in an email to The Herald. “All first-gen first-years are contacted during the summer, with events during orientation and throughout the year designed specifically for them,” Mandel wrote.

From Feb. 27 to March 1, first-generation students from all over the Ivy League convened on College Hill for the first conference hosted by 1vyG, an organization started at Brown to provide a space for first-generation Ivy League students to connect.

Students and administrators who participated in the 1vyG conference “were able to create an action plan that we will be working on this upcoming year,” Mandel wrote. “We hope that the conference will be hosted by another university next year and plan to support our students’ attendance then,” she added.

But Morales said she did not feel like there was a place for first-generation students on campus prior to 1vyG’s inception. Though the University sends out many emails to first-generation students, few students attend the events because the University “does not make an effort to encourage a first-gen narrative,” she said. While it is comforting to graduate this year knowing that future students will have the 1vyG support network, the University “could make a larger effort to reach out to families,” she added.

“There are a lot of ironies that are imbedded in the Ivy League first-gen,” Contreras said. “My family was first and foremost happy that I was going to college — it did not matter which one.”

Clarification: A previous version of this article placed a quote by Manuel Contreras ’16 out of context, implying that Contreras’ father joked that his first instinct at Brown would be to do the landscaping. In fact, his joke was in reference to being at an alum’s house in San Diego, California, for an admitted student event.


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  1. Testimonial evidence from a
    recipient of affirmative action tends to extend the Brown survey findings.
    Associate Justice Sotomajor said not too long ago:

    “I am a product of
    affirmative action. I am the perfect affirmative action baby. I am Puerto
    Rican, born and raised in the south Bronx. My test scores were not comparable
    to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale. Not so far off so that I wasn’t able to
    succeed at those institutions . . . (But) I have spent my years
    since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not
    feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.” Sonia Sotomayor

    If one of the most
    successful recipients of affirmative action acknowledges
    continuing self-doubt as a consequence, we may infer that such self-doubt tends
    to be present more generally, perhaps among first-gens, too.

  2. The Editors of BDH were unable/unwilling to publish this, so I publish it here…John Lonergan

    A gift of $100 million a year to

    We would like to
    give $100 million per year to Brown. This money could be used to offset tuition
    fees, pay professors more, and support Brown’s current budget, which is in
    deficit. We have proposed this to
    Christina Paxson and several leaders within Brown’s administration.

    We in Northern
    California have created a plan to significantly increase Brown’s
    revenues. We are students from
    before birth, and remain students until we die. Those who are fortunate
    enough to attend Brown bring their own experiences and relationships with them.
    Our proposal outlines how Brown can participate in the learning process
    for high school students, with a goal of exposing students to Brown professors
    and students, developing and reinforcing a Brown-student relationship well
    before the admissions process begins.

    The key benefits to
    Brown are:

    1. Brown can
    add $100 million in revenues by teaching AP courses.

    2. This program would
    benefit both high-income and low-income high school students, as well as local
    teachers, Brown professors and Brown students (as paid

    3. This gives you Brown
    to increase student acceptance
    rate (now at 60%) and improve the number of high-potential poor
    students (a key target).

    proposal outlines a plan for Brown to offer AP courses in select schools,
    starting with Northern California. These
    courses would be co-taught by the local AP teacher and Brown professor,
    assisted by Brown students acting as proctors.
    The goals of the program are:

    1. To offer the students a compelling, interesting and
    informative set of courses.

    2. To expose promising high school students to Brown professors
    and students.

    3. To give Brown visibility on promising students who may
    become good candidates to attend Brown.

    4. To support schools which may need
    teaching resources in inner-city and poorer school districts, and support their
    local efforts.

    fundamental principles of this program are that (1) it must be financially
    self-supporting, (2) it offers a first-class educational experience that is
    rewarding for Brown students and professors as well as students, and (3) that
    it works in concert with local resources, with full backing of the high

    is offered

    The educational product would consist of the following:

    A set of internet lectures using
    the Khan Academy format on AP subjects, given by a professor at Brown.
    These lectures are normally watched by the students online at home
    (as homework).

    A set of exercises and questions
    which are answered by the students during class time.

    A teaching guide for the local AP
    teacher. The teacher uses this guide and assists students in class
    to answer questions and do exercises.

    Tests to be proctored by the local
    AP teacher which are submitted for grading to Brown students assisting the
    professor (Brown students are paid for this course assistance). Results
    are then shared with the AP teacher and Brown (for certification).

    If applicable, online textbooks as
    a part of the educational offering.

    will pay?

    those who have the greatest stakes in the education of students: parents,
    teachers, guidance counselors, who are willing and able to pay. “Rich”
    schools’ parents pay for their child’s certificate. Some scholarships
    offered. “Poor” schools parents pay, but with a great deal more
    scholarship assistance.

    are the target markets?

    the world. The “freemium” model can be disseminated on YouTube and used
    by millions. The “certificate” model is also freely expandable (same
    professor, more Brown student proctors).

    much effort is involved?

    A Khan
    Academy format requires very little professor time and effort. With a
    virtual “blackboard” and voiceover, the professor can video a series of
    lectures based on his/her Brown classroom offerings.

    school students in the “certified” program will require support. This
    would be provided by Brown students working at the direction of a Brown
    professor. These students’ main tasks would include grading courses,
    answering teachers’ and students’ questions, and monitoring feedback.


    scholarships administered by Brown in collaboration with local guidance counselors.

    We have shared the
    entire plan, with revenues and costs, with top members of the administration at
    Brown. It is also available for public
    view at http://www.brownnext250years.wordpres...

    So, what’s stopping
    us? Let’s make this happen.

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