During his sophomore year, Kushal Dev ’20 took “Intermediate Macroeconomics,” a class that required a textbook that costs hundreds of dollars. Such an investment was not feasible for him at the time, but without the textbook, he was at a big disadvantage: each week, students took quizzes with questions directly taken from textbook pages.
During his third year, Jóse López ’18 was standing in line to get a drink at a celebratory dinner for juniors when a tall, white male student cut in front of him and took a drink before him. Initially, López didn’t say anything. After a few minutes, he confronted the student, who waved him off and said he thought López was a dining hall worker. López was shocked into silence.
“The words ‘I’m sorry’ never left his lips,” he recalled.
López is a first-generation, low-income student, and Dev has a low-income background. Experiences like these can make many FGLI students feel like they do not belong at Yale — a place marked by privilege where nearly 70 percent of students come from the top 20th percentile.
In each incoming class, around half of students do not receive any financial aid. In the Class of 2023, 17 percent of students identify as first-generation college students, compared to 18 percent of the Class of 2022. According to a YaleNews report, around 20 percent of first-year students receive federal Pell Grants, subsidies the federal government provides to students with financial need.
In recent years, administrators have introduced new policies and programs for FGLI students, and on Thursday, the University announced a major expansion of its financial aid policy; beginning next year, parents who earn $75,000 or less in annual income will not be expected to contribute to their child’s Yale education. Currently, the threshold for zero parent share awards is $65,000.
In a statement to the News, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said Yale administrators are proud of the “remarkable increases” in the numbers of first-generation and low-income students enrolling in Yale College.
“The recent increase in enrollment in the [First-Year Scholars at Yale] program, the growth and support of the FGLI Community Initiative, and the expansion of the offerings at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning are all important ways Yale College is adapting to meet the needs of this growing population,” he said.
Still, some students point to the lack of a physical space and designated administrator for FGLI students as an area of necessary improvement. A newly revived student group, First-Generation Low-Income at Yale, seeks to provide community for FGLI students and expand the conversation around the particular burdens that these students face.
According to Paige Swanson ’20, co-president of FLY, the challenges of being low-income or first-generation on campus often resist quantification.
“[The challenges are] learning how to navigate the resources of Yale, feeling comfortable navigating those resources,” Swanson said.
Those challenges include not having a winter coat or being able to afford textbooks. Or it might be a less tangible feeling of not belonging, of questioning what it means to belong at all.
A culture of privilege
During move-in weekend her first year, Suzanne Brown ’22 and her mother decided to attend a “meet and greet” at her Head of College’s house. At the event, parents of other first-years chatted effortlessly with each other over refreshments, Brown recalled. Brown and her mother, though, struggled to join conversations with other parents, many of whom seemed to be doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
After the meet and greet, Brown’s mother, a Certified Nursing Assistant, told Brown that she didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone there.
“It made me very cognizant that this was the environment I was about to enter,” Brown said.
For Brown and other first-generation college students, navigating Yale — where over 10 percent of students have legacy affiliations — can lead to inevitable comparisons to classmates with parents from more educated backgrounds.
Josh Diaz ’21, an FGLI student and Sociology major in the Education Studies program, recalled hearing his suitemate last year on the phone with his mother, who was explaining her edits to his essay. Diaz couldn’t relate to this experience. If anything, he helped his mother — who recently graduated from community college and is now a first grade teacher — with her own homework. Diaz remembered his mother scolding him in high school for getting a B in his geometry class. But when she took geometry her first year of college and could not grasp the material, she immediately apologized to him. At Yale, Diaz frequently experiences dissonance — realizations that the way his peers grew up differs greatly from his own upbringing.
To make it to Yale, Diaz said, is a matter of power and privilege more than it is of talent.
“I see power and privilege as all you need [here],” he added.
Diaz described his “well-off” suitemate whose parents both attended Yale. Unlike Diaz, his suitemate had not been not stressed about his summer plans because, two summers ago, his dad got him an internship at Columbia. “I’m stressed because I don’t have that. If I don’t find a job, I’m ripping out hardwood floors with my dad,” Diaz said.
Even before the incident when he was mistaken for a dining hall employee, López said he struggled to accept that he belonged at Yale. He described Yale as a “very performative place” where students boast about their resumes and success. López, however, felt unprepared to enter such an environment as the first in his family to attend college in the United States.
“I think it takes a really long time to really have total faith in yourself to be in this space,” López said. “No one taught me I had to act to navigate a place like this.”
López doesn’t want to lose the values his family back home in Los Angeles instilled in him. He sometimes feels guilty for being at Yale, with access to vast opportunities, when he knows that his family in Los Angeles does not have access to the same choices. They cannot go back home to Mexico, López said. As he worked on initiatives to help FGLI students as a Woodbridge Fellow, he couldn’t stop thinking about those family members, the people he cared about most.
“Some of us are very proud of where we come from. Some of us want to learn more about our own background, our histories. Some of us aren’t as interested in this individualistic frame of success,” López said. “We think of our progress as being part of a communal effort.”
In his admissions essay to Yale, Diaz wrote about how he considered academic excellence a necessity, not just a goal. If he wasn’t “perfect” academically, then he wasn’t making the most of his education, for himself and for his family. Now, as a junior, Diaz said he still retains that mentality.
“I wish that would have ended [at Yale]. I still have to be the perfect student. I still have this [feeling] of artificial debt. My dad works 12 hours a day for me to be here. My parents sacrificed all their youth to make sure we could be doing well,” Diaz said. “How do you not stay up til four a.m. in the library thinking about that?”
A financial investment
In response to growing numbers of FGLI students and their demands, University administrators have made efforts in recent years to expand financial aid and better support FGLI students.
In 2017, the Yale College Dean’s Office launched the Domestic Summer Award, which provides undergraduates on financial aid with a stipend of up to $4,000, if they have secured an approved unpaid or underfunded opportunity. In fall 2018, the University also announced the Community Initiative, which is directed by the Woodbridge Fellow under the YCDO and the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.
The YCDO and Asian American Cultural Center also partnered in 2018 to establish the Yale College Career Closet, where students can borrow professional clothing for formal events like interviews and receptions. This September, 65 students attended a giveaway at the Career Closet, and 226 pieces of clothing were given out, according to Woodbridge Fellow Jorge Anaya ’19. In addition, Yale announced on Thursday a reduction in the student effort for all students who receive zero parent share awards. Currently, the student effort is $4,450 in the first year and $4,950 for subsequent years, while the new policy reduces the amount to $3,700 for all four years. Recently, Yale further enhanced these awards providing a $2,000 startup grant for a student’s first year and free hospitalization insurance coverage.
As a Woodbridge Fellow and coordinator of the Community Initiative last year, López met with FGLI undergraduates regularly and worked initiatives like the Career Closet and the Winter Clothing Grants. This year, Anaya has assumed López’s role. Since the Community Initiative is still only in its second year, there is room for more efficiency in the program’s operation, according to Anaya.
“Now that I don’t have to create the foundation, I can work on things that existed,” he said. Anaya is researching whether it would be possible to provide more STEM textbooks to students through residential colleges. He is also collaborating with the CTL to update its workshops on finances and budgeting as an undergraduate FGLI student.
Anaya has also been working with Associate Vice President of Student Life Burgwell Howard to find a meeting space on campus for FGLI-centered groups, such as Questbridge, FLY and A Leg Even. While Anaya said that his job keeps him busy — he coordinates a team of seven undergraduate FGLI student ambassadors — he does not consider his work burdensome.
“I do this wholeheartedly, I really love it,” said Anaya, who is a FGLI alum. “I want to stress we are together in this, and stress community, because sometimes Yale feels isolating.”
Despite administrators’ efforts to expand financial aid and resources, some FGLI students still feel like the University views them “as a financial investment,” López said. For instance, he said he does not think administrators understand how the student effort affects many low-income students on campus. The student effort is the estimated cost of attending Yale that is not covered by financial aid or outside scholarships, which some FGLI students pay by working campus jobs.
For years, student activists have called for the elimination of the student effort, which is colloquially called the “student income contribution.” Despite pressure from student group Students Unite Now and other activists to eliminate the student effort, the University has chosen not to. Administrators have emphasized that the student effort is not directly paid to the University and all peer institutions also expect students on financial aid to contribute to their own education. Catharine Bond Hill, the senior trustee on Yale’s Board of Trustees, said the work expectation of around 6 to 9 hours a week to fulfill the student effort should not be a significant challenge for students.
Aside from the student effort, though, Tucker Hart ’22, a FGLI student, emphasized that administrators can take other meaningful steps to make Yale welcoming for FGLI students. In fact, he composed a list of action items that the University could implement and met with Chun and Wallace last semester to explain his ideas.
For one, Hart said, students should not receive an automated email from the Office of Financial Aid in response to inquiries. Instead, a financial aid officer should call the student and walk them through their problem. And fines, like the fee of $20 to drop a course, should not be used as leverage by the University, Hart added.
Chun said that in response to Hart and other FGLI students’ concerns about the facelessness of Yale’s Office of Financial Aid, the office is “changing the way it communicates with students, focusing in particular on personalizing responses whenever it can.” Chun added that the office is trying to make it easier for students to schedule appointments with officers by restructuring and advertising open office hours.
Carving out spaces
A few students are actively working to create spaces on campus for FGLI students to build a sense of community and provide a tangible place where they can discuss how to navigate Yale’s resources.
In 2017, Dev created the Silliman Textbook Library as a resource for FGLI students at Yale who might not be able to afford the cost of their textbooks.
After taking Intermediate Macroeconomics, Dev realized that other low-income students might also be struggling to purchase their textbooks, especially for textbook-heavy courses like economics, Directed Studies, or language classes, which often require the purchase of textbooks with online codes costing upwards of $70.
Dev talked to former Yale College Council President Peter Huang ’18 who mentioned that other schools had textbook libraries where students could use donated textbooks at no cost. Dev worked with his Head of College, Santos, to establish the textbook library in Silliman’s Acorn Café. The library has now moved to the backroom of the Silliman Library, and Dev is working to make the space “a sort of hub” for FGLI student resources.
Dev maintains a database with all the books, including information about the book’s course, author, condition and donor name. The library includes books for courses in Economics, English, African American Studies, Chemistry, American Studies, Directed Studies and a few other subjects.
While he has tried to create a resource for FGLI students through the textbook library, Dev still does not feel that there are adequate spaces on campus for FGLI students.
“It doesn’t solve the broader issues I wish it could,” Dev said. “Where is a full faculty member, a secretary or vice president who deals with [the experiences of FGLI students]?”
According to Chun, Howard’s role encompasses all of student life, but he specifically oversees and coordinates support for FGLI students, including the Community Initiative.
Unlike other universities with designated centers for FGLI students, such as Princeton, Yale does not have a centralized space where FGLI students can gather. Brown emphasized the importance of having a “physical space” and envisions a place like the cultural centers for FGLI students to congregate.
Chun, however, explained that Yale does not have a center devoted to FGLI students since the residential colleges already facilitate community. “Support for FGLI students is already built into the residential colleges, just as it is for students who seek support as members of other communities they belong to or identify with,” Chun said. Residential college heads and deans already work with Community Initiative staff to provide a network of support in the colleges for FGLI students, he added.
During her first few years at Yale, Swanson was not part of any FGLI groups on campus. As vice president of the Yale College Democrats, she said she has been struck by the relative lack of socioeconomic diversity in the group. She realized she craved a community of students from similar backgrounds and she worked with Neche Veyssal ’20 to revive FLY.
This year, FLY is working toward two goals: creating a centralized space and advocating for a financial aid officer who works specifically with FGLI students. Currently, Swanson said, FLY meets in a small room in Saybrook, but the space is not sufficient and many students do not know about it.
Swanson said the group plans to host study breaks with different class councils to draw in FGLI students from all grade levels. In early September, the Community Initiative hosted a dinner for FGLI students, drawing around 200 students. To Swanson, the large turnout proved that there are many FGLI students at Yale craving community.
Still a relatively new group, FLY now has five board members and around another 10 actively involved students.
“A bigger space than what we have now won’t [happen] anytime soon but if we can invite more people into the space we have now, we’ll show the administration it’s working,” Swanson said.
Meghana Mysore | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Oct. 5: A previous version of this article said that the financial aid office provided FLY with a list of first-year students who identify as first-generation or low-income this year. This sentence has been deleted, as the Community Initiative runs the email panlist with these students, and no student groups have access to any information about students’ financial aid standing.
Correction, Oct. 12: The article has been updated to reflect the financial circumstances of a quoted student.