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The First to Go to College

Empowering first generation students at Harvard

Over Junior Parents Weekend, parents and family members of 12 first-generation College students had the opportunity to come to Cambridge on Harvard’s dime to record interviews with their children. The Bureau of Study Counsel and StoryCorps, a national oral history organization, collaborated to make the initiative possible. The recordings of the first-generation students and their families will soon be made available in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where they will be accessible to the public.

First-generation students, the first in their families to attend college, often face a unique set of challenges. Thirty percent of students in higher education today are first-generation; many of them also come from low-income households.

Many first-generation students are disadvantaged because they lack information about the college experience taken for granted by students who grew up in families where college is the norm. First Lady Michelle Obama articulated this asymmetry well when speaking about her own challenges as a first-generation student: “I didn’t know how to choose my classes or find the right classrooms. I didn’t even know how to furnish my own dorm room.”

Given these considerable obstacles, it is essential that first-generation students at Harvard and other colleges receive support. The Junior Parents Weekend project is the latest of several recent initiatives at Harvard that have worked to empower first-generation students, and it deserves recognition for beginning to create a body of knowledge on the first-generation experience that will benefit future students.

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Other programs, often catalyzed by first-generation students themselves, have had similar positive effects. Last month, Harvard hosted the 1vyG conference, which gave first-generation students from all eight Ivy League schools the opportunity to share their experiences and hear from experts in breakout sessions. Harvard’s support for the conference, largely organized by students, stands alongside initiatives like its new spring break dining plan as positive steps that will help to alleviate the challenges that many first-generation students face.

We encourage Harvard to continue improving the college experience for first-generation students on campus. Mather’s designation of a dedicated first-generation tutor, for example, could be replicated at other houses. First-generation students also face many practical obstacles, such as the cost of books and the difficulties associated with transitioning to college. Eliminating the burden of textbook costs and offering an academic bridge program over the summer could help ease first-generation students’ acclimation to college life and build on the programs that Harvard has already undertaken.

Harvard, spurred by the advocacy of first-generation students, has made great strides toward ensuring that the first-generation experience receives adequate attention in College programming. By continuing this progress, Harvard can work toward ensuring that no student faces undue burdens to full participation in College life.

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