The 1vyG Conference and First-Gen Issues

By LULU ZHOU

Most colleges will provide you with a more or less similar education, but they will each shape you in different ways and show you different versions of yourself. 

When I chose Middlebury College, it was not because I loved Middlebury during Preview Days but because it truly overwhelmed me. The Preview Days showed me that this college probably was not for people like me: a first-gen college student, a first-gen immigrant and the first and only student from my public high school in Queens to attend. But I knew that Middlebury would push me to grow in ways I could not have imagined. (Middlebury also gave me more financial aid than the other schools I was accepted into). 

What happens when first-gen students actually arrive on campus?”

In a sociology class with Professor Matt Lawrence, “Higher Education and Society,” we read a paper called “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students.” Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery argue that the majority of low-income, first-generation students do not even apply to any selective colleges. Why not? Have they heard about colleges like Middlebury and their generous financial aid? How hard do colleges like Middlebury try to reach out to these students in the first place? The reality is that the majority of students from my high school do not know the existence and the possibility of colleges like Middlebury. Many of us did not have the socialization processes and educational resources that could help us think about the possibility of attending a prestigious college.  

What happens when first-gen students actually arrive on campus? A “pre-orientation orientation” to ease the transition to an elite institution for those who identify as first-generation college students? That did not exist when I arrived at Middlebury as a first-year student during the fall of 2015. I wish it had. The MiddView Orientation week remains one of the most overwhelming experiences of my four years at Middlebury. But I was not surprised by these feelings.

I experienced a range of psychological and emotional disorientations being in an environment so culturally, socially and socioeconomically different from my public high school-a new school, where I was a member of the first graduating class, and a school in an immigrant neighborhood in Queens. Where am I? Why am I here? How did I get into this college? These questions are common among all first-years, but for first-gen students, these questions become even more heightened at an elite space that is unfamiliar to their upbringing. I am glad that Middlebury is finally dedicating resources to create a stronger support network for first-gen students, but there is still A LOT of work to be done at Middlebury and in the higher education system as a whole.

How do institutions change themselves to better incorporate or integrate diverse students’ identities and lived experiences?”

First@Midd, the optional pre-orientation program which intends to support first-gen students’ transition to Middlebury, started in 2016 as a major addition to the First Generation Experience programming. After returning from studying abroad, I had the privilege to participate in First@Midd 3.0 as a peer leader and peer mentor for the first-gen mentorship program.

Working with a group of peers and Anderson Freeman Resource Center (AFC) staff members who care deeply about education equity was an honor. Hearing the positive feedback from these first-years about the support they received in the transition into and out of Middlebury was heart-warming. Concretely, I noticed that many of these first years expressed greater confidence in seeking out resources and opportunities and immediately jumping into leadership roles.

It made me and other first-gen seniors who knew a Middlebury without First@Midd reflect; If we had benefited from such programs since the beginning of college, where would we have been in 2015? In 2019?

Thanks to the AFC’s support, Paola Meza ’19, Yasmine Signey ’22 and I attended the 5th annual 1vyG Conference, “From Moment to Movement: Capitalizing on our FLI Experiences to become Agents of Change in our Communities” at Princeton University this past February. FLI stands for first-generation/low-income; it is not a homogenous definition, identity, or experience. The 1vyG is a project of EdMobilizer, an activism group that aims to increase higher education resources for FLI students. These students come from a range of diverse backgrounds and tell narratives that paint a larger picture of access, equity and justice issues in the higher education system. This was the first year that Middlebury and several other liberal arts colleges were invited to attend the 1vyG Conference, which had 350 FLI students and administrators from over 30 higher education institutions.

As a first-gen senior, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to attend this conference for the first—and last—time. A major highlight was the keynote session, in which Jessica Brown and Viet Nguyen—who founded 1vyG in 2015—shared incredible insights about being first-gen students and activists who have witnessed the change in the first-gen movement.  

For example, four years ago, the term and the identity “first-gen” was hardly recognized—much less, discussed. Many even thought it referred to first-gen immigrants. I also rarely thought about or discussed the concept of being a “first-gen” student. Four years ago, the term first-gen had a stronger stigma. I felt uncomfortable and even embarrassed self-identifying as a “first-gen.” Four years ago, higher education institutions did not have many programs to support first-gen. Middlebury did not have any.

They give us bikes, but they don’t teach us how to ride them?”

Raising awareness about first-gen issues has become a powerful social movement nationwide. And first-gen has transformed into an identity that many now embrace with pride. I’ve learned how to appreciate the extent to which this identity has motivated me throughout all these years at Middlebury and now embrace it with pride. 

However, many of the struggles first-gen students faced four years ago are still prevalent today: imposter syndrome, mental health issues, family responsibilities, lack of sense of belonging and financial strains, to name a few. As Nguyen stated, students from underrepresented backgrounds have to assimilate into the dominant social structures and cultural norms in order to succeed in college and beyond.

The question is, how do institutions change themselves to better incorporate or integrate diverse students’ identities and lived experiences? What could institutions do to promote education access and equity practices?

It was an honor meeting so many inspiring and dedicated peers and allies who brought together diverse communities, shared personal and institutional struggles and uplifted each other’s efforts and voices at 1vyG. I felt ambivalent when I learned that many colleges are lagging behind in their efforts to represent and support first-gen student communities as compared to Middlebury College. For example, one student group from a highly-known Ivy League university even had to fundraise to pay for their own transportation to the Princeton conference.

A peer shared an analogy of the relationship between elite higher education institutions and first-gen students: “…so they give us bikes, but they don’t teach us how to ride them?” Elite colleges are increasingly admitting more students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, but what are they doing to support these students throughout their college careers? What changes are they making within their institutional and cultural structures, so that these students don’t just survive, but thrive?

About a month ago, we held a debrief meeting about 1vyG at the AFC. The major initiative that the AFC is planning to launch is the First-gen Student Advisory Board, which would be able to use the AFC’s resources to organize events and implement programs relevant to the first-gen community. On a larger scale, there is great potential to build a first-gen coalition among the NESCAC colleges, similar to what the Ivy League did with 1vyG. I believe that students’ voices and initiatives are powerful agents of change in our communities.

In the larger picture of higher education, first-gen students at these highly prestigious and selective colleges only represent a small proportion of FLI students in the U.S. We also need to think about FLI students in public universities and community colleges as we think about higher education equity and justice issues. 

Indeed, as Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, a professor of Education Studies at Colorado State University, argues, there are major differences among diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in educational spaces. Diversity asks, “Who’s in the room?” Equity responds: “Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?” Diversity asks, “How many more of [pick any minoritized identity] group do we have this year than last?” Equity responds, “What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority here?” Inclusion asks, “Has everyone’s ideas been heard?” Justice responds, “Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?”

As a first-gen senior about to graduate in May, if Middlebury has taught me one thing, it’s the importance of community and of giving back to community. Gradually, I have created my own community of friends, professors, and mentors who have supported me to pursue what I believe in. The community that continues to fight for a more just and equitable society has contributed to the person that I wanted to become at the end of my four years. For first-gens out there, consider reading this and this. 

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The 1vyG Conference and First-Gen Issues