I am a low-income, first-generation college student at Yale, and I’m definitely not the only one. Given the diversity of Yale’s student body, chances are you have friends and classmates who are the first in their families to go to college.
Currently, 12 percent of the freshman class is made up of first-generation college students. About 14 percent of Yale undergraduates are on full financial aid.
Before Yale, all we heard is that our university has some of the most generous financial aid policies in the country — a policy that brings first-generation college applicants to Yale.
But at Yale, a variety of problems arose: I didn’t have enough money to pay for plane tickets or textbooks. I wasn’t academically prepared for the rigorous workload at Yale. I didn’t have anybody in the family that could relate to the academic and social aspects of the college experience. Our university’s financial aid policies are only one of many steps toward bridging the education gap between low-income, first-generation students and their peers at Yale. The admissions literature we see before Yale heavily advertises our percentage of first-generation college students, but any mention of the issue suddenly disappears upon matriculation.
Few students at Yale seem to know about the struggles that burden a significant portion of their peers. I faced this problem as I desperately tried to understand why I wasn’t passing exams, and why I had to spend weeks crafting a five-page paper. I was told by freshman counselors to seek out a tutor, to study in groups and to go to office hours. This was great advice, but nobody told me the honest truth: I went to a high school that didn’t prepare me well enough for Yale, and I had to spend my first year catching up.
For me, high school consisted of memorization and regurgitation for the sake of doing well on standardized exams. It did not consist of critical analysis. I didn’t realize at the time that I had not been taught how to study properly, nor did I know how to write a critical essay. And the whole notion of speaking in a 15-person seminar was overwhelming given that most of my classes had consisted of at least 30 students. I had spent my efforts simply applying the formula I had learned in high school: If I work hard, I’ll do well.
But arriving at Yale knowing that your suitemates had understood the college application process since birth — while for you it was a good amount of guesswork — was disheartening. I didn’t even know about the early application process until I found out that many of my freshman-year suitemates had applied early action. I’d hear about friends who would send essays to their parents for editing; I couldn’t do that with my parents.
And so you begin to feel alone. There is no space that supports students who struggle through these very normal challenges transitioning to Yale. Not only was I discouraged by the difficulties I faced freshman year, but I also believed that it was my fault. That is, until I met plenty of other students who came from similar backgrounds and had similar concerns.
Loyola Marymount University, Boston University and Princeton all take their low-income and first-generation college students into account by hosting “bridge” summer programs that seek to aid these students with the social and academic transition into college. They provide personal counseling for students their first year, the option to take preparatory summer classes, study sessions and — most importantly — they provide a community of people going through the same experience. When will Yale follow suit?
It is a wonderful coincidence that we happen to have $10,000 at our disposal every year from the Yale College Council that we are “challenged” to find creative ways to spend. Why not then use these funds to establish such a program here at Yale? Not only would low-income, first-generation college students benefit, but it would also help the entire student body to understand the day-to-day experience some of their peers live. Starting such a program will help us talk about the issues of class and inequity at Yale, a conversation that’s long overdue.
Alejandro Gutierrez is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .