A new student organization hopes to ease the difficult transition to life at Yale that lower-income freshmen may face, in addition to providing them with increased social, academic and professional resources.
The group, A Leg Even, was founded at the beginning of the school year by a group of students looking to combat specific challenges that lower-income students face at Yale. The first group of members includes 42 freshmen from a variety of racial and geographic backgrounds, according to ALE Founder and President J. T. Flowers ’17. The group is set to officially begin regular programming next week, although members have already had several meetings so far. ALE leaders are also fundraising to provide lower-income students with summer stipends so that they can more easily afford to work unpaid internships.
Flowers emphasized that ALE is meant to supplement existing administrative efforts to support lower-income students by centralizing resources and ensuring that students are aware of how to take advantage of them.
“[Yale is] really doing a good job of working to increase accessibility at the administrative and institutional levels, and A Leg Even is a student-driven effort to further that same overarching mission that the University has been so adamant in pushing,” Flowers said. “I don’t think you can have the type of growth we want to see on this campus without both sides of the coin.”
ALE will host speakers and small faculty lunches throughout the year to expose its members to a variety of career paths and academic fields. Each student will also be paired with a graduate student advisor, who will offer academic and professional advice, including advice on interviewing techniques and how to build a resume.
Members are encouraged to develop leadership skills by organizing and moderating at least one general discussion meeting throughout the year for the rest of the members, Flowers said. In the future, former freshmen members will also gain experience in managing a student organization by filling a position on the group’s executive board.
ALE eventually plans to branch out to other colleges and universities to operate on a national level as a support network for lower-income students.
Freshmen have already begun to take advantage of ALE resources. Mohamed Karabatek ’19, a member of the group, said his mentor, a Yale Law School student, has already helped put him in touch with contacts for an extracurricular project he is working on regarding the Syrian refugee crisis.
Members interviewed praised the organization for providing a support system for lower-income students.
“A Leg Even is the biggest community-building resource that I have,” Karabatek said. “It puts [lower-income students] in touch with people who are going through the same, and through that we’re able to understand that we’re not alone in the struggle.”
Rayan Alsemeiry ’19 said ALE is an important network for students who did not participate in a freshman orientation program like Cultural Connections or Freshman Scholars at Yale, programs he said comprise only a minority of lower-income students. Alsemeiry added that ALE has connected him to students with similar personal experiences.
“I think a common thread among people who come from a disadvantaged background is that we don’t really know people who have attended a school like this,” he said.
Burgwell Howard, senior associate dean of Yale College and dean of student engagement, said it can be difficult for students to navigate college life if they are the first in their family to attend college, but noted that Yale’s residential college system provides a useful support structure for students in need of guidance.
Flowers said it can be difficult for lower-income students to adjust to life at Yale, noting that these challenges can be something as simple as feeling out of place raising a hand to speak in a seminar.
“Our goal is to minimize that transition time so kids can get their feet under them as early as possible, and accordingly, really make the most of their four years here,” Flowers said.
One of ALE’s central tenets is providing summer stipends for students. Flowers said Yale’s student income contribution — which expects students receiving financial aid to contribute a certain amount of money made over the summer toward tuition — can make it impossible for lower-income students to pursue unpaid internships that may help them secure jobs after graduation.
The organization’s inception coincides with mounting pressure on the university administration to eliminate the student income contribution entirely. The student income contribution is currently $1,625 for freshmen and $3,050 for upperclassmen. ALE is in the process of raising $100,000 to provide 20 students with summer stipends of $5,000.
“The fact that ALE has to step in and cover that for us rather than Yale that has a $25 billion endowment and can easily do that is kind of unfortunate,” Alsemeiry said.
Karabatek said it may be more productive for him to work full-time at a restaurant over the summer to make enough money, rather than taking a more rewarding unpaid internship at the Clinton Foundation. Still, he added that even if the student income contribution were abolished, there would still be a need for ALE’s summer stipends, as lower-income students do not always have the resources to go abroad or pursue opportunities that wealthier students have.
Flowers said that while the goal of ALE is not to change specific University policies, he continues to discuss financial aid policy with administrators both informally and through other outlets.
As of fall 2014, 14 percent of Yale College students were receiving Pell Grants, which are cash awards given to students requiring the highest amount of financial assistance as designated by the U.S. Federal Government.