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The Hidden Curriculum: First-Generation, Low-Income Students Tackle Yale’s Invisible Hurdles

December 14, 2017 was a big day for Logan Roberts. It was the day he came out, and the day he got into Yale University.

“I realized that [getting accepted into Yale] would dwarf the coming out,” Roberts ’22, said in an interview with The Politic, “so I resolved to myself that if I got into Yale, I would also come out the same day.” 

An hour after receiving his acceptance letter, Roberts posted his coming-out on Instagram. Then, he went straight to performing “Paso Flamenco” in his high school band concert. Only after returning home did he tell his parents and two younger sisters about his college news.

“It was excitement for 30 seconds,”  Roberts recalled. “Then the next 30 seconds were ‘Don’t get too excited. I’m not sure we can [afford to] send you here.’”

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“Before my junior year of high school, I had planned to go to the University of Illinois just because if people from my high school went to college, that’s where they went. And then my English teacher told me about QuestBridge.” Paige Swanson ’20 was raised in Rockford,  one of the largest cities in Illinois, and she had only considered Yale to be a possibility after learning about the scholarship program.

Swanson applied to QuestBridge’s National College Match, a program that pairs students with colleges with a full four-year scholarship. While she ultimately did not gain admission into the College Match program, she received a “likely letter” from Yale a few months later.

“I remember my mom wasn’t home from work yet and I was sitting at home for hours just like ‘I need to tell someone, I’m going to lose it.’” 

The Directed Studies (DS) program at Yale has never been considered easy, but for Swanson , there was an added layer of difficulty: “You get into class and there are kids who it seems like have read these texts in Latin since middle school. The experiences that you just haven’t had can leave you feeling behind.” 

Yale is cognizant of this growing need. The Yale Class of 2023 has been touted as the most economically diverse class in the college’s history. Over 20 percent of first-year students qualify for Pell Grants—a need-based federal subsidy for low-income students—for the second year in a row, and more than 17 percent of first-years are the first in their families to go to college. Linda Chin, an At-Large Delegate for the Association of Yale Alumni and active member of alumni network 1stGenYale, explained that the University is actively working to attract First Generation Low Income (FGLI) students. As a result, the school and student groups now proffer a laundry list of  support programs for FGLI students on campus, which provide services from pre-professional preparation to community activities.

But sometimes the need is not as easy to identify. “There is this term that a lot of people in the first-gen low-income community and scholars write about called the ‘hidden curriculum,’ which is this whole other set of norms and practices that govern institutions of higher education like Yale.” Knowing what office hours are, or how to write professional emails, for example “are never taught, but are something that you’re supposed to be able to figure out,” said Swanson, the co-president of FLY (First-Generation Low-Income at Yale, an advocacy organization for FGLI students).

The hidden curriculum isn’t just these seemingly-small hurdles; it is pervasive in a larger culture of academic alienation for FGLI students. “Doing DS my first year made me confront a lot of these issues much quicker,” Swanson said. 

Jorge Anaya ’18, a current Woodbridge Fellow with the Poorvu Center and the Coordinator of the Community Initiative, shared Swanson’s feeling of alienation. “Academically, I felt like there was something that was always missing or something that other people were inherently better at than me,” he said to The Politic. Anaya used the fact that he came from an underprivileged high school with limited resources and access to opportunities to justify these feelings to himself. Yet he continued to feel imposter’s syndrome. “It was chipping away at my academic self confidence and I just didn’t really feel like I belonged,” he said. 

Everyone at Yale enters the classroom with different academic experiences. Karin Gosselink, a member of staff at Poorvu and a co-supervisor of the Community Initiative, explained that “the baseline content knowledge some students were able to develop in high school can be uneven.” 

When Yale Political Science Professor Andrea Aldrich, a first-generation college student herself, spoke to The Politic, she explained that she always tries to approach her classes with these diverse backgrounds in mind: “I was told to try to avoid the phrase ‘so, we all know.’ I had never thought about it before, but I realized that could be something that makes somebody uncomfortable because you could have a student sitting there thinking, ‘Well I didn’t know that, does everybody else know that?’” 

Not every professor approaches the classroom with the same mentality. Gosselink commented that “Because Yale College historically has been dominated by students from well-resourced private and public schools, faculty sometimes assume that students are all starting with similar levels of background knowledge in a given field.”

Aldrich has used her own experiences as a first-generation college student to make sure her own students feel more comfortable. “I always try to tell my classes right away a little bit about myself and put [my FGLI background] out there with the idea that maybe there is somebody in one of my classes that has a similar background and might see me as more approachable. I would have liked that [when I was] in college.”

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In the spring of 2018, Roberts got an email from Yale inviting him to join First-Year Scholars at Yale (FSY) Program, a five week summer experience designed to help first-generation and low-income students get acclimated to Yale. He was initially excited about FSY, but ultimately had to forfeit the experience and spend the summer working two jobs to afford everyday college expenses. While FSY recently expanded to 72 students, over 200 other students who qualify for the program are unable to attend, either because it’s financially unfeasible or there is simply not enough space. 

“I was jealous—I know that program would have been perfect for me, it’s designed for people like me,” Roberts recalled in an interview with The Politic, “but I just couldn’t do it because I needed money in my pocket.”

Karli Cecil ’20, a former FSY student and later a counselor, explained that the program did more than just ease her transition into Yale during her first semester. Many of her closest friends today are people who also did FSY, even though they may not have been close during the summer program itself. “Once we got here and we started having overlapping extracurriculars, those are the people I would migrate towards because they were familiar faces, but also I knew that they got me on a different level,” Cecil explained. 

FGLI students at Yale often describe moments of “culture shock” when they feel as though they are out of place. “I had never heard of Vineyard Vines until I got here,” said Anaya. “It’s a small thing, but it’s just uncomfortable knowing that there is stuff out there that people know about, it’s just intuitive to them, and for me I was just playing catch-up or pretending that I knew what I was talking about.” 

These culture shocks can manifest in larger ways, especially when it comes time for school breaks. Many FGLI students cannot afford to leave campus every break, a luxury many of their peers enjoy. “I remember I stayed here for my first October break and I was like ‘Oh, everyone has left, this is sad,’” Swanson recalled.  

“I didn’t feel intentionally excluded [at Yale],” Roberts said, but the quiet social alienation was certainly present. “Once your friends start going out to dinner or taking weekend trips to New York City, it’s like a subliminal, inadvertent pushing to the side.” 

As a result, though many of his friends are not first-generation or low-income, Roberts said that “some of my best connections are with my FGLI friends because they’re the people who can best empathize with where I’m coming from.” 

The Community Initiative has tried to build a broader FGLI community by sending out a weekly newsletter to FGLI students detailing upcoming community events and resources. A recent newsletter included details about an information session for FLY, as well as instructions on how to access the Career Closet, a new project spearheaded by the Community Initiative that allows students to check out articles of professional attire for periods of two weeks to wear to meetings, interviews, and other events that require formal dress. 

First-generation alumni networks have also recently expanded. In 2016, Lise Chapman SOM ’81 and Magda Vergara ’82 launched 1stGenYale, a shared interest group designed to facilitate relationships with current and former first-generation students. 1stGenYale held its first conference in April 2018 to discuss the barriers first-generation students often face. 

“The [Yale] Administration was very helpful in supporting the conference,” said Linda Chin in an interview with The Politic. “The conference brought alumni together, and many of the alumni said that it was the first time they had been back on campus. And that says a lot. It says a lot about the feelings of belonging and alienation.” 

Swanson commented that, among other initiatives, FLY is working to get a dedicated physical space for a FGLI student home at Yale. According to Gosselink, “so many of these programs are relatively new,” so it is still hard to measure their success.

It remains to be seen whether the efforts of FLY and the Community Initiative, along with older, more established campus resources can meet the needs of Yale’s growing FGLI community. “Yale is trying,” said Roberts, “but I think that more student input is needed, and more community cohesion is necessary. It’s a work in progress.”