The Road Less Traveled

// Brianna Loo

Juan Bravo ’16 has had many firsts at Yale. First Commons dance. First chemistry problem set. First snow. But before Bravo came to New Haven, he first bid a final farewell to his California high school: to metal detectors at every door, police officers at every corner, knives in every pocket. In 2011, Bravo’s high school made headlines in the Los Angeles Times when a student stabbed his friend in the school’s cafeteria. The attention that fell on the school was accompanied by neither prestige nor pride.

At Yale, it was more “Good Will Hunting,” and less “Stand and Deliver,” a 1988 film about a crumbling East Los Angeles high school. Lin and Bravo were the first in their families to attend college, and one of the first in their communities to attend Yale. They came from neighborhoods with large minority populations, few college graduates and even fewer Ivy League prospects. Now, Handsome Dan has replaced their schools’ bands of drug-sniffing police dogs.

In the current freshman class, 12 percent of students will be the first in their family to complete a four-year college, placing them in the category of “first-generation” college graduates. Their numbers are smaller than that of freshman with a legacy affiliation, who make up 13.8 percent of the class of 2017.

With students like Lin and Bravo in mind, Alejandro Gutierrez ’13 wrote a News column last February. As a first-generation student, Gutierrez lamented the lack of institutional support on campus and encouraged the creation of an academic bridge program to ease the transition to Yale. Two months later, the University announced the creation of the Freshman Scholars at Yale program, a five-week summer bridge program not unlike what Gutierrez proposed. The program targets low-income students from under-resourced areas — of whom “almost all” are first-generation, according to Dean William Whobrey, who administered the program as dean of the Summer Session.

This July, the Admissions Office invited 60 students to participate in FSY. With a cap of around half that number, it accepted the first 33 respondents. While living in Morse College, each student completed a nonfiction-writing seminar (English 114) for credit — with all expenses, including food, housing and travel, paid for by Yale. Workshops and seminars familiarized students with Yale’s academic resources, including writing tutors and personal librarians. Outside the academic realm, students took program-sponsored trips to nearby Connecticut tourist sites. In a 2012 APA study, Stanford professor Hazel Markus and four co-authors explored why first-generation students perform academically worse than their continuing-generation counterparts. The authors studied the top 50 ranked U.S. universities, including Yale, and found that campus culture fueled the generational disparity. Most highly ranked schools foster a highly independent climate, a social norm familiar to middle- and upper-middle-class students. First-generation students, in contrast, are often more familiar with interdependent norms. The end result: a “cultural mismatch” for first-generation students. A mismatch which translates, often, to academic subordination.

“We call ourselves the Mistakes. Sitting, doing our homework, not understanding it: how are we here?” Maxine Dillon ’17 asked. “It’s a question that’s always in the back of my mind.”

Dillon, a Freshman Scholar and first-generation student, is not alone. Bravo’s high school cafeteria is a far cry from the hallowed halls of Andover, and the smoke-filled bathrooms of Lin’s adolescent years paint a stark contrast to the pearl-white pillars of Choate Rosemary Hall.

Still, President Salovey has hailed Yale as a “great equalizer” among students. But for most of the first-generation students interviewed, the pursuit of the American dream presents an uneven path.

Two weeks after the program’s end, President Peter Salovey addressed the incoming freshman class, his voice raspy with laryngitis. Within minutes, a theme emerged: the American Dream. Centering the discussion on socioeconomic diversity, Salovey emphasized Yale’s power to further social mobility. He carefully sidestepped the usual admissions labels, with no mention of “disadvantaged” or “low-income” students. Still, it was an evening of firsts, as Salovey breached the issue of class — a subject several students interviewed called “one of the last taboo topics at Yale.”

“Why did I choose to talk about Yale and the American Dream today?” he asked. “To assure you — especially those of you from families that are not affluent — that the dream is very much alive here.”

Perched atop one of Yale’s grandest stages, Salovey’s words echoed through a crowded Woolsey Hall. But in the smaller corners of campus, in the common rooms and the library cubicles, the echoes are harder to hear.

 

SCALING THE GAP

9:01 a.m.: Trek to WLH, coffee in hand. Careful not to spill. 9:05: Open the door. Sit in the back. 9:06: Grab a syllabus. Follow along. Watch a hand climb up, gingerly. Listen. Eschatological. Phenomenology. Try to spell each in your head. Your question: what, exactly, are the “problems of philosophy”?

So began Jamar Williams’s ’17 second day of classes. “Everyone was asking provocative questions, and it was nine in the morning,” said Williams, a Freshman Scholar and first-generation student. Most freshmen confront academic intimidation at Yale, but first-generation students may be especially predisposed to this kind of struggle. With so many coming from under-resourced backgrounds, the necessity to play “catch-up” is amplified. “I felt like I had more to find out than the average Yalie,” recalls Christina Bui ’13, a counselor for the Freshman Scholars program and first-generation student.

“A lot of things are open to everyone, of course. But there are all these unmentioned prereqs,” said Ellie Dupler ’16, a first-generation student and QuestBridge scholar.

Some, of course, meet such unspoken requirements with ease. Hannah Thai ’16 described a friend who had taken Greek at her private high school, read Herodotus in the original and memorized it. “She said she tried not to correct a professor when he misquoted it,” Thai recalled.

Asked if intimidation has ever affected her academic choices, Thai nodded. “Yale prides itself on diversity, but the playing field is not even. [For] subjects like English and classics, you have to have such a strong background,” she pointed out. “I feel like that’s why I’m doing economics. I mean, I like it. But also, everyone is starting fresh.”

Directed Studies, the selective year-long humanities program offered to freshmen, embodies such unspoken fears about academic inequality. “I never even thought of DS as an option. It seemed like something that wouldn’t be open to me at all,” said Jazzmin Estebane ’13, an FSY counselor and first-generation student. Mimi Pham ’17 agreed. “I felt like I wouldn’t match up to the other kids in the program,” she said.

Professor Howard Bloch, director of DS, denied that the program might be inaccessible to students from certain backgrounds. “It’s no more exclusive than reading the Western canon, which is everyone’s privilege and responsibility,” he said, emphasizing his belief that knowledge is democratic.

Fidgeting in her seat in Bass Cafe, Thai contested that idea. If knowledge is democratic, education — the basis of how we learn knowledge — is not. “I can understand why people are afraid to apply [to Yale]. There’s such [an academic] disparity,” she said.

But Gutierrez insisted that his academic career, while “needlessly difficult,” was not dictated in content by his background. The academic disadvantage that he felt extended equally across subjects and was not more or less palpable for certain disciplines. “I felt like I had to work a lot harder in any class to stay afloat,” he said.

The “knowledge gap” perceived by first-generation students is not the only challenge they face. Many must also adjust to a rigorous and unfamiliar teaching style. “In high school, it was, ‘Did you read?’ Here, it’s ‘Make an argument,’” Thai explained.

“I’m not that smart. I’m good at asking questions. I’m good at doing what I’m told,” said Kerry Burke-McCloud ’17, an FSY and first-generation student. But Travis Reginal ’16, who wrote about his experience as a first-generation student in the New York Times this July, is careful not to conflate academic potential with academic performance. Reginal does not think the first-generation community is any less academically capable. “It’s not that you can’t do the work,” he told me, “it’s psychological. It’s how you view yourself in light of others.”

For Reginal, Yale administrators may not have helped that unhealthy mindset. “I have had awkward conversations at Yale, including one with writing tutors who assumed I didn’t know what a subordinate clause was. Adults would ask how I was adjusting to a culture so different from what I was ‘used to,’” he wrote in the Times. “My family is ‘low income,’ and I am supposed to go to college and excel to provide a better life for everyone back home. And the community back home is desperate for healing.”

Despite a diversity of experience, first-generation students share a common complaint: the de facto absence of parental understanding. “People in my suite call their parents to critique their essays. I could never do that,” Thai said. All three of Thai’s suitemates attended private schools. One suitemate’s mother teaches at Stanford. Many like Thai find the social inequality, often insidious and unspoken, frustrating.

For that reason, the Freshman Scholars interviewed said they cherished the program’s tight-knit community. “FSY humanized Yale for me. It took off the name,” Burke-McCloud said. Because most students shared similar social and financial backgrounds, conversational taboos were lifted. Freshman Scholar Maxine Dillon ’17 described the general campus dialogue about first-generation status as “awkward” and marked by a hesitancy she had not felt during FSY.

I talked with Williams on a crisp fall evening. Tugging at his Fair Isle sweater, he spoke with nostalgia about the program. When FSY students are left to replay Salovey’s lofty words, what parts of his speech remain with them — what does Williams hear?

Sleep-deprived but smiling, he sighed, saying, “It’s hard to remember the dream when you’re drowning in work.”

 

BETWEEN HOMES

“As the saying goes, behind every new Yalie is a stunned parent,” Salovey joked, glancing at the family-filled upper reaches of Woolsey. Some mothers met the President’s eyes and laughed. Some fathers may have smiled in agreement. Others, on that Saturday morning, were left only to imagine Yale from afar.

The parents of Julia Dixon ’16 may have been gazing out into the cotton fields of Mauk, Ga. Hannah Thai’s father might have been working at his gas station in Gun Barrel City, Texas. Ellie Dupler’s mother was likely delivering mail to the 800 inhabitants of Thompsonville, Mich.

We may not have heard of these communities, but they haven’t heard of Yale, either. Thai recalled that she had to explain “what exactly Yale was” to some residents of her town. Estebane, the FSY counselor, had only heard of Harvard in high school. “I had to look up where Yale was when I first applied to QuestBridge,” she told me. For her first two years at Yale, Estebane’s parents told friends and family that she went to school in New York City — it was, to her neighbors and relatives, the closest conception they had of the East Coast.

For those who do recognize Yale’s name, a brand image often follows. “When you tell someone you’re going to Yale, the reaction is, ‘Oh, you’re going to be with a bunch of blazer-wearing, crumpet-crunching prep students,” Burke-McCloud said, laughing. Burke-McCloud is from Jacksonville, Fla.

For Eleanor Marshall ’16, reactions were less jovial. “A lot of people in my home town [in Iowa] do not like Yale. They associate it with elitism and success,” she said. Marshall added that when other graduating seniors sported college sweatshirts, she hesitated to don any shade of Yale blue.

Asked about Salovey’s American dream speech, Marshall said, “My first reaction is to be offended — to think it’s funny. Part of the language about the American Dream is this idea that Yale is the end of the road, that you’ve made it once you’ve gotten here.” This is a mindset she does not share.

Dixon, the first-generation student from Georgia, struggled to keep her close friendships from home. Two of her best friends, neither of whom attend college, stopped speaking to Dixon after her acceptance. After years together among the cotton fields of their rural town, they told her that she would never understand their lives.

The families of these students struggle to conceptualize Yale, and students struggle to fill in the gaps. “When you go home, you realize that you speak in a different language,” Estebane said. “You have to explain things differently — I couldn’t even explain dorm living. I couldn’t describe my classes to my parents. It was just so outside their realm.”

For most, that alienation is realized fully during students’ first visit home. Lin recalled the anticlimax of seeing his friends again for the first time, many of whom attended vocational schools or community colleges. “I didn’t really know what to talk to them about,” he admitted. Dixon’s family maintained that she was more reserved and thoughtful, though Dixon said “everything felt normal after a few days back.”

Asked if they were living the American Dream at Yale, most Freshman Scholars had the same answer. “I don’t feel like it’s my dream. It’s my family’s,” Thai said.

Given the circumstances of many first-generation students, the pressure to succeed is acute and constant. Williams’ mother started his SAT tutoring in fifth grade, in what Williams describes as “typical tiger mom fashion.” But for most, the pressure to succeed is both inextricably linked to family and motivated by personal drive.

Mahir Rahman ’16, first-generation student and president of Yale’s QuestBridge chapter, agreed. “If I fail here, I fail for my family. So I can’t fail,” he shrugged.

Rahman tried to describe his idea of success. “It’s not a job at Bain and Company. It’s not your successful application to Harvard Medical School,” he paused and looked down at his hands. “It’s the fact that I can lay out in the courtyard, thinking about my dream and, the very next second, work towards completing it.”

 

SPEAKING UP

“It was the most helpful thing I could have done.” “I wouldn’t have known what to do without it.”

“I feel more connected to my FSY friends than my suitemates.”

Feedback from Freshman Scholars — like Jill Carrera ’17, Thai and Pham quoted above — leaves little room for criticism. But the success of the program raises another concern: what about everyone else?

Of the 1,360 students in the freshman class, 163 are considered first-generation students. Of those, some 130 did not reap the benefits of a five-week bridge program. Given funding limitations and the experimental nature of the program, Dean Whobrey said there are no plans to expand the program’s size in the next two years, after which it will undergo an evaluation.

In August, Salovey’s speech initiated a top-down dialogue on first-generation students — a step most students applaud. “I think we’ll get those lofty words in addition to great action,” Estebane said. Dupler also stressed Salovey’s remarks as the first line in an emerging narrative about class and community. “I think — well, I hope — we’re at the very beginning of a revolution for first-generation students. I think it’s only going to get better from here,” she added.

But Rahman questioned the true impact of Salovey’s words. “It’s such a fine stride for our new president. But where’s the action that follows?” he asked.

Among students, the “bottom-up” effort is less pronounced. “Only when it came to the point that you couldn’t take it any more” would discussions surface, said Bui, who graduated in 2013. “I can count on my two hands the number of conversations I had about being first-gen at Yale.” The topic, it seems, has yet to reach Yale’s dusty common rooms, crowded dining halls and seminar roundtables. As Rahman put it, the dialogue is “hidden behind print, rather than spoken,” referring to the issue’s recent pervasiveness in campus publications.

But Raymond Mejico ’17, an FSY and first-generation student, shrugged when I asked him whether he wanted more student-led discussion. “I like being anonymous,” he said.

“I don’t talk about being first-gen a lot, but that’s because it doesn’t pervade my life,” Forrest Lin ’16 explained. “But I do think there’s a stigma associated with it.”

With Yale historically providing little institutional support specific to first-generation students, many find solace at the campus’s cultural houses. Gutierrez recalls that it was through his involvement with La Casa and MeChA, a Chicano social justice organization, that he first found other first-generation students. Estebane, as a peer liaison at La Casa, also found students with a similar interest in first-generation challenges. Still, she said, “That’s not a conversation that’s occurring on the general campus.”

But Bui resents the reliance on cultural houses to frame discussion of the issue. “We don’t need a house to bring about a conversation,” she declared, noting that institutional support should strengthen the first-generation community without isolating its students.

Lin also expressed reservations about the racialization of the issue. “Since I’m Asian-American, a lot of people don’t assume that I’m first-generation low-income and, when I tell them, many are surprised. And then, my [other] friends of color have to deal with the assumption that they are here because they are low-income,” he explained.

Yet for some, color is the greatest factor in their struggle to find a place within Yale’s complex social fabric. A member of the Black Men’s Union on campus, Reginal identifies himself as African-American before first-generation. He stressed that racial frustrations often overshadow any challenges he has encountered as a first-generation student. Although he affirmed that he is doing what he wants to do on campus, he questions whether all organizations are equally accessible to students from his background. “When will there be the first black editor-in-chief of [the] YDN?” Reginal asked.

Dean Whobrey said he hoped this year’s class of Freshman Scholars will lead the program in the future. Whobrey added that the group displayed a tight-knit bond, a “common diversity, which seems like a paradox,” by the end of the program. But, he said, “[FSY] is not about making lifelong friends. It’s about showing these students how some of the social dynamics work [at Yale].”

Nearing the middle of their first semester, the 33 Freshman Scholars have spread out and settled across each of the 12 residential colleges. On Tuesday night 20 of them assembled for their first “reunion.” But despite her love for the program, Pham wondered whether those five weeks would make a difference in two years. By then, the Freshman Scholars program will have faced its first evaluation by campus administrators. Members of the inaugural class will have entered their junior year — perhaps by then their common experience will feel less significant, with memories of home replaced by those formed under Gothic archways and on marble steps. But for now, at least, Pham is still adjusting.

“I think walking diagonally [through the intersection] is the weirdest thing,” she said, referring to the diagonal crosswalks characteristic of New Haven.

Maybe not quite the American Dream, but a step in the right direction, however slanted.

Clarification: Oct 21.

A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed statements about a Los Angeles high school to Forrest Lin ’16. In fact, the descriptions were made by the writer. The News sincerely regrets this error.

Comments