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Isolation, Insecurity, and Community: Being First-Generation Low-Income At Yale

As I stood in line waiting to board, I felt a tap on my shoulder. My Yale sweatshirt had betrayed my identity. Soon enough, a group of us coalesced around the gate and boarded the train to our future school. Strangers just minutes ago, we effortlessly launched into conversation, chatting about everything from our family to what our high schools were like. My anxiety washed away with each topic. I no longer felt alone. Then someone brought up what we had planned for the summer. We went around in a circle, each person before me talking of travel plans to various countries about which I had only read. It was an altogether innocent conversation, but I felt my anxiety mounting a comeback.

I remember the days back home in school just before a vacation when people would talk about their plans. I remember feeling embarrassed when it would be my turn and all I could muster was “we’re just keeping it low-key this Thanksgiving.” We hardly ever travelled, but I never thought anything of it. It was just what we did. But now, as my future college classmates listed the countries they had visited and planned on visiting, I was confronted with an insecurity I forgot I had.

Despite my belief that this was an individualized experience, after coming to Yale, I soon came to see that such feelings of isolation were common among members of the first-generation low-income (FGLI) community. For José Lopez ‘18, it wasn’t until he went to spaces designed for inclusivity, like La Casa Cultural, that he knew something was different. Now a Woodbridge Fellow spearheading the FGLI Community Initiative, Lopez recalls times when he felt the “slightest alienation,” often asking himself, “Why do I still feel out of place?”

Yale has worked to address disparities between socioeconomic statuses in such spaces. The Class of 2022 marks a banner year for socioeconomic diversity: a record 311 students, constituting 20 percent of the class, are receiving a Pell Grant, a government award given to low-income students. Additionally, the Yale Daily News reported that 18 percent of the class of 2022 are first-generation, amounting to a 75 percent increase over the last few years. These numbers are encouraging for the first-generation, low-income community. Yet it was only in 2005 that Yale pledged to eliminate the previously mandatory family contribution for households earning less than $45,000 dollars. Since then, Yale has increased the threshold to $65,000.

Despite the numbers, feeling comfortable identifying as FGLI is a challenge that we still face. Priya Singh ’19, head FroCo of Saybrook College, described how, “At first, I would never disclose any information regarding my SES [socioeconomic status] to my friends. I didn’t want to be the ‘broke friend.’” Something as simple as deciding what to buy for a suite, Singh added, can unknowingly put FGLI students in a tough spot.

Singh also made sure to point out that in her experience, “most people are really understanding of other’s financial situations.” This understanding is greatly appreciated, but it is often the implicit differences that alienate FGLI students. In my case, it was something as simple as not realizing that traveling abroad is, for many, a luxury.

Access to resources is another source of disparity our FGLI community faces. Many of us come from underprivileged areas, and it is easy to feel underprepared academically. In order to help bridge this gap, Yale started the First-Year Scholars at Yale (FSY) program in 2013. This annual summer program hosts sixty low-income first-years for five weeks in Ezra Stiles College. While on campus, students enroll in an English 114 seminar, receive math tutoring, and are exposed to a variety of Yale’s resources in order to better understand how to succeed.

Having done FSY, I gained much more than just an English credit. I received an early membership into the FGLI community.

Yet only sixty out of the 311 students receiving Pell Grants got the opportunity to attend FSY. This leaves over 200 students unable to benefit from such an experience. FSY is part of the solution, but unless it can be expanded to include all low-income students, many will still come into Yale with a disadvantage.

Even for those who have done FSY, feelings of inadequacy still pervade. Former FSY counselor Maddy O’Neal ’19 told me,  “Sometimes I struggle with impostor syndrome, where I get so worried that if I don’t do well in a class or make a mistake, then doors will be closed to other students from my background.”

It is as if being FGLI at Yale is a privilege that could be taken away from future generations if the current generation fails to live up to expectations.

In a Harvard Crimson article, alumnus Kevin B. Jennings, who started the First Generation Harvard Alumni Group, spoke of how he dealt with imposter syndrome throughout his undergraduate years. Jennings wrote that he was worried that “people were going to find out that [he] was the admissions mistake and that [he] should never have been admitted.”

Internalizing these struggles is especially easy when considering the pressure FGLI students often face back home, which can stem from a desire to give back. Like many others, Singh recognized how her family has sacrificed and worked so hard so that she could focus on school: “I want to succeed academically so that I can provide a better life for my family in return.”

Pressure to succeed and give back is a relatable concept for many students regardless of background. However, when factoring in the added sacrifices that FGLI students have seen their families make, it only adds another layer of pressure. It is easy for us to put up a fake front out of fear of letting down our communities.

These shared difficulties and pressures have forged strong bonds throughout the FGLI community. O’Neal gushed about how meaningful it is to be a part of the FGLI community: “Being part of the FGLI community really means more to me than any other community I’m a part of at Yale. Being able to talk to students who understand the struggles that we face every day is refreshing.” And as this community grows, so does our confidence. “We deserve a fair chance to be represented at elite universities like Yale,” Singh said.

As I enter the FGLI community, grateful for the opportunity to attend Yale, I recognize an element of privilege that I’ve been given. I am proud to identify as an FSY alumnus and a low-income student, a confidence only possible thanks to the support I have received from the strong FGLI community that already exists. Like many other of my classmates, I still feel pressure to succeed because of my upbringing and face a daily battle with impostor syndrome. I worry that I won’t be able to give back to my mom all that she has selflessly given to me, or live up to the expectations that many in my community have unknowingly placed on me.

Yet amidst those worries I find strength in our improbable path. As my fellow FSY alumnus Solomon Gonzalez ‘22 captured perfectly, “Being FGLI means for me that I am an underdog, yet capable of just as much as others.”