Yale Daily New

The first-generation, low-income faculty-student mentorship circle at Yale is preparing to return after a two-year hiatus, connecting the student body with professors and administrators who had been FGLI students themselves. 

Conversations about initiating this type of mentorship began in winter of 2019, and the program ran briefly throughout spring 2021 before evolving pandemic constraints made it challenging to continue. Now, the University’s QuestBridge Network, Muslim Students’ Association and FGLI Advocacy Movement are making this opportunity available to students again. The first in-person event will be on March 4 from 1-3 p.m. in the Founder’s Room in the Afro-American Cultural House.

The circles will be small: approximately one professor matched with two or three mentees, depending on student preference. Sessions will place an emphasis on professional development and navigating campus culture. 

“Having a professor who identified as FGLI is useful because they know where we came from,” Co-President of the Yale QuestBridge chapter Ismihan Abdelkadir ’24 said. “They know what it’s like to come into a place at Yale, and not have the same resources as your peers. They can tell you what they did during their college days.” 

In a February 2020 survey sent out by former Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, around 180 faculty members identified themselves as having been FGLI students. According to Yale FGLI Advocacy Movement president Hedy Tung ’24, around 20 to 30 then expressed explicit interest in the faculty-student mentorship circle that year, with nearly 40 professors and administrators participating in the circle in the spring of 2021. However, she said, that number has since significantly dwindled due to turnovers and faculty leaves. 

As of earlier this week, less than a month before the kickoff event in March, there are just four or five faculty members — composed of a mixture of professors and administrators — slated to participate in the program, Hedy continued. She and Abdelkadir are in the process of following up with Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis and Howard to recruit more professors, but reinstating the program on a faculty level has been a difficult journey. 

A 2021 study published by the New York Academy of Sciences suggested that FGLI students attending large institutions often struggled with finding a mentor, rating their faculty as being less “supportive and caring” of their personal or academic pursuits. Meanwhile, those who engaged more with student organizations, university-affiliated long-term projects and internship or research opportunities — as well as students who took out more loans for their studies — appeared to give more positive ratings of faculty and professors. 

The statistic on loans is relevant — debt can serve as a proxy for family income and participation in internships and faculty-led projects in the aforementioned study. Per a 2022 report by the Education Data Initiative, student loans exhibited a positive correlation with one’s household income, hovering at $30,575 for those who fall below the 25th percentile and at $45,965 for those between the 83rd and 98th percentile. 

Meanwhile, FGLI students at Yale, other Ivy League institutions and prestigious universities across America often attend their respective universities with a full-ride scholarship, graduating with little to no debt. Nonetheless, the likelihood of low-income students to take on non-academic jobs to cover additional expenses can compromise their participation in unpaid internships or academic projects, important avenues for facilitating better relationships with faculty members. 

This year, Tung and her colleagues envision a program that focuses on overcoming isolation and developing academic confidence in daunting college environments, especially during the transition from high school to Yale. As a Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology major, Tung knows all too well the feeling of sitting in a large lecture class, feeling isolated and finding it challenging to approach professors. 

“We kind of envision [professors] building … personal relationships [with students] where [they] can … share [their] own before and after stories and how [they] got to the place [they] are today,” she added. “If I had an [outlet] like this and knew that my professor was sympathetic and wanted to offer mentorship, it would probably make it easier for me to reach out and have a conversation.” 

Mentorship at Yale is frequently associated with upperclassmen advising younger students, but professors are “more connected” to the University, and can provide additional resources such as recommendation letters and advice on what courses to take, Tung said. 

Part of the challenge for students hoping to find FGLI advisers is that the FGLI label is not part of one’s professional title in the workplace, Chun told the News when the initiative was first launched in March of 2021.

Before they matriculated to Yale, Ethan Estrada ’25, who was admitted as one of the University’s 72 QuestBridge match recipients for the class of 2025, was the mentee of senior lector and associate research scholar Luna Nájera from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, who shares their Latine background. Their relationship with Nájera endured outside of the formal program and into their sophomore year at Yale — they recently took a course with her during the fall 2022 semester.

“We mainly talked about academic life,” Estrada said. “She was encouraging and questioning, which allowed me to think critically about what it meant to do critical academic work at Yale … and about how I interact [with others] being away from home.” 

Still, they said there was unclear communication from the actual program managers regarding its hiatus during the spike of the pandemic. 

Looking forward, Estrada hopes that the leadership now overseeing the mentorship circle will develop a more streamlined program timeline of events and sessions, which they believe will help students gain the full academic, personal and social value of connecting with a professor. 

Yale students whose families earn less than $75,000 a year have their tuition, room and board fully covered by the University.

William Porayouw contributed reporting. 

Correction 2/17: The article has been updated to accurately reflect Estrada’s preferred surname and pronouns. 

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!