Part of imagining the future Harvard is admitting students from economically diverse backgrounds, noted panelist William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, during the “First in the Family” event at the Harvard Club of Boston. Moderator Kevin Jennings ’85 (from left) shared his experiences with fellow panelists Jasmine Fernandez ’16, president of the Harvard First Generation Student Union, Anya Bernstein Bassett, Ph.D. ’97, and Fitzsimmons '67. Jennings, who had closely studied how students at Harvard dressed, said he arrived from his home in a trailer park looking preppier than anyone else.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Learning on the fly

8 min read

Campus life comes with particular challenges when college is a family first

One evening this week at the 107-year-old Harvard Club of Boston, a fire roared in a hearth at one end of the main room, near plush sofas and a discreet but well-stocked bar. The wainscoted walls were rich hardwood. Tapestry-like banners of Harvard Houses and Schools hung on the walls. Large, lit chandeliers shone like gold.

Opposite from the fireplace were lines of folding chairs, all filled by an audience representing a very modern-day Harvard College — one where every sixth undergraduate is the only one in their family to have gone to an American college.

“First in the Family,” a Feb. 25 panel event on first-generation students co-sponsored by the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), drew about 100 listeners. When asked if they had been or were first-gen students, about a fourth of the audience stood up. “What Harvard can imagine, and what it can be, is up to us,” said HAA Executive Director Philip W. Lovejoy, paraphrasing Harvard President Drew Faust.

Part of imagining the future Harvard is admitting students from economically diverse backgrounds. Statistics show that if a student is poor, he or she is six times less likely to graduate from college. That’s a waste of social capital, said panelist (and first-generation student) William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, dean of admissions and financial aid. “We’re going to rise or fall together.”

In the last 11 years, he said, Harvard has seen a 33 percent increase in admissions of students from lower income categories. Twenty percent of students now are from families earning $65,000 or less annually; another 5 percent of families are in the $65,000 to $80,000 range. During the event, one graduate stood up to say that when she had been admitted, her parents — restaurant workers born in China — together made $16,000 a year.

The panelists cautioned that being a first-generation student does not necessarily equate to being from a low-income family. “The first-generation people at Harvard are wildly diverse,” said Fitzsimmons, dean since 1986. “You should make no assumptions.”

But income aside, such students often have to catch up with the cultural norms and realities of college life. When panel moderator Kevin Jennings ’85 arrived in Harvard Yard from the rural South as a freshman, he thought his domicile for the year, Weld Hall, was one of those Northern tenements he had read about. Jennings had also closely studied how students at Harvard dressed, and arrived from his home in a trailer park looking preppier than anyone else.

Introducing the panel, he listed other challenges. Applying to college is one, and getting the right guidance in high school is another. “Who do you ask for help?” said Jennings, a former education official in the Obama administration and now the executive director of the Arcus Foundation. There were 476 students in his North Carolina high school, he said, but just one guidance counselor.

Then comes the “universally awful experience” of college receptions for freshmen, said Jennings. Settings can hurt. (A black student friend of his attended an event at a former plantation.) Questions can hurt too, he said, including the commonplace, “Where did your parents go to school?”

Once in college, Jennings added, a first-gen student has to choose a major, and it’s unlikely to be something like folklore and mythology. “You’re under enormous pressure to major in something practical.” After graduation, a first-gen student is confronted with career choices ― finance, consulting, venture capital ― that often seem impossibly remote from the chicken yard at home or the corner in the old city neighborhood. “These careers are completely foreign to you,” said Jennings, the son of an itinerant Southern Baptist preacher.

Such challenges led to the founding in 2012 of First Generation Harvard Alumni, of which Jennings is president. The group focuses on mentoring, advocacy, and networking.

Fitzsimmons grew up in Quincy, Mass., but saw Harvard for the first time in his senior year of high school. His parents ran a gas station 15 miles away, but by other measures, Quincy was in a different galaxy. After the event, Fitzsimmons pointed to the doorway leading to the vast room at the Harvard Club where he and his mother had stood five decades ago, not daring to go in. “I still have culture shock,” he said.

Despite the divide, Harvard seemed attractive right away to Fitzsimmons, a rugged hockey goalie who grew up Catholic. “You would flunk out and you would lose your soul,” he remembered being warned. “That sounded like a very interesting package.”

Panelist Anya Bernstein Bassett, Ph.D. ’97, a scholar of social class and life outcomes, advises a lot of first-gen students ― many of them feeling out of place. “My students do talk to me about arriving here like it was Mars.”

She lauded the University for having made great progress. “We should be really proud of Harvard for doing this, for creating the next generation that really represents America.”

But plenty of work remains, she said. “Our challenge is how to do this better.”

Bassett imagined a near future in which Harvard boasted a whole architecture for supporting first-gen students, including “an entire team” of peer and alumni mentors, advising fellows, and academic advisors.

Panelist Jasmine Fernandez ’16, president of the Harvard First Generation Student Union and a neurobiology concentrator, grew up in a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood full of immigrants. Meeting her classmates for the first time was jarring, she said. “Boat shoes and salmon-colored shorts were definitely a shock.”

Then there was the challenge of finding her way around, culturally and practically. “I had to navigate my own education because my parents didn’t know how to.”

She agreed that Harvard is institutionally welcoming to first-gen students, but pointed to opportunities for improvement, including making the first-gen experience more visible on campus.

Some like-minded concerns, such as adequate clothing for northeastern weather, go way back: Harvard’s Overcoat Fund dates to the mid-19th century. Others are more recent. Fitzsimmons told of his brother, an undergraduate at Yale decades ago, having 25 cents in his pocket ― for three weeks. It was all he had to spend.

After the event, Harvard Law School financial aid officer and first-gen student Janie Rangel ’90 remembered days like that, when spring break wasn’t a break because there was no money to go home, much less to the beach. One year, she said, someone in her family was in a car accident. It was a happy accident, in a way. With the settlement money, her parents bought her a plane ticket home to south Texas. During other spring breaks, Rangel worked almost full-time at her work-study job in order to be able to afford meals in Harvard Square.

Then there is food. Last year, just before spring break, Fernandez was unable to go home. Stranded on campus, she joked to a friend, “Let the hunger games begin,” then went shopping in East Boston for cheap food. (Things will change. Starting this spring, a pilot program will keep two dining halls open for students who can’t go home for a variety of reasons.)

There are fixes out there for first-gen students short on cash, said Fitzsimmons. Beyond Harvard’s precedent-setting financial aid packages, there is a “shoestring guide” for shopping cheaply outside Harvard Square; a guide to managing money; and subsidized tickets for events.

“Harvard could go back to being a boutique institution” as it was in his own undergraduate days, said Fitzsimmons. Instead, it has chosen to deepen economic and social diversity through admissions.

And lucky Harvard, he added. First-generation students from diverse cultures and modest financial backgrounds provide constant lessons in perseverance to fellow students and are reminders that talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

Students who are the first in their families to go to college, said Fitzsimmons, “are all about excellence.”

First in the Family: Attending Harvard as a First-Generation Student

In this HAA Alumni Education event cosponsored by First Generation Harvard Alumni, current First-Generation student Jasmine Fernandez COL ’16, Dean of Admissions and First-Generation alumnus Bill Fitzsimmons AB ’67, and Dr. Anya Bernstein Basset PhD ’97, whose research focuses on First Generation experiences at elite universities, share their perspectives and thoughts on what it is like to be a First-Generation student at Harvard. Moderated by Kevin Jennings AB ’85, President, First Generation Harvard Alumni. Recorded in February of 2015 at the Harvard Club of Boston.