A First-Gen First
In high school, Andrea Esposito found herself “so bored and unhappy with the limited life roles my culture and background offered that I was desperate to leave school and run away from my life.” A few enlightened teachers steered her toward a City University of New York program, in which she found engaging college classes. As she pursued them, and worked at Drexel, Burnham—initially as a clerk, and ultimately with increasing responsibility—she found a possible career interest in finance, too, and earned enough money to contemplate being able to afford the application fees for college
That modest beginning—leading to an A.B. from Harvard in 1981—is only the first of many first steps narrated in a pathbreaking new volume just published by the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) class-reports team. Most College alumni know about the quinquennial class reports: the distinctive “Red Books” in which they update one another about their lives since Cambridge. Now, HAA has partnered with an alumni shared interest group (SIG)—the First Generation Harvard Alumni (FGHA), founded by Kevin Jennings ’85—to produce the first non-class “class report,” the collection First Generation Harvard Alumni: Reflections. The volume was unveiled last Friday in an HAA-College Office of Diversity Education and Support event for both the alumni contributors and current first-generation students.
The progress of first-to-college students through an undergraduate education is commonly, and correctly, perceived as uplifting. But the steps they must take to find their way to and through college are frequently demanding and difficult—a challenge that elite institutions have only begun to take into account during the past decade, as they have sought to admit more first-gen and low-income students, many coming from under-resourced high schools around the country (see the extensive report here). The institutions’ response has been driven both by the rising size of the first-gen and low income cohort, and by those students’ pressure on the institutions to recognize their circumstances, the obstacles they face in traveling from home (many for the first time) and adapting to new expectations (at Harvard, the First Generation Student Union, now reflagged as Harvard Primus to be more welcoming of low-income classmates).
The new “Reflections” volume vividly illuminates some of the obstacles those students had to overcome—perhaps surprisingly, beginning in the preface by William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, the College’s long-time dean of admissions and financial aid, who has admitted the current undergraduates. He wrote (emphasis added here and where indicated in the following excerpts):
As a first-gen student who benefitted from generous financial aid, I had never seen Harvard until my senior year in high school despite living 15 miles away. Two of the teachers at my Catholic high school refused to write recommendations for Harvard, deeming it unsuitable for Catholics. Fortunately, other teachers disagreed, as did many of the customers who frequented my family’s gas station and convenience store. The shipyard workers, truck drivers, railroaders, healthcare professionals, present and former military personnel, and the wide range of people I had come to know over the years from working at the store and gas station strongly advised me to go Harvard!
At least he had some support. Esposito had more than geographical obstacles to overcome. As she wrote, and read aloud to the audience November 8:
I attended high school in Staten Island, New York, the only conservative and insular part of New York City, whose population is comprised of predominantly blue-collar city workers. The school was…at the time, in the mid 1970s, eons away from the Manhattan scene of progressiveness, diverse culture, and education.
[After her course work at CUNY] a few caring professors…suggested I apply to some of the top schools in the country, including Harvard.…Once I had a reasonable sum saved and understood student loans and grants, I began to apply to Ivy League schools, not expecting anything, but hoping for the best.
I come from a loving immigrant Italian home where girls grow up and maybe go to a local community college, possibly become nurses or teachers, but, more importantly, were expected to marry and raise a family. Thus, my admission applications created tension at home. There were many turbulent arguments over the possibility of my moving away from home prior to marriage. In those days and in my culture, only “bad girls” left the family prior to matrimony. I had responsibilities in the home, especially when my mother took ill, and I felt guilty about abandoning my family who did need me. My father, concerned that my dreams would be dashed, insisted that I take every civil service exam being offered so I would have a fallback if all my activities failed. Yes, I did take them all!
Years later, my mother explained that the intensity of her anger [emanated] from the fear of losing me to a world she and the family did not understand. My mother in particular believed I did not belong among what she considered an elite socioeconomic class. The emotional turmoil was awful for me and my entire family. Given this emotional background, during my first year I did feel like a stranger on campus, straddling two very different worlds. I believe it hampered my first year’s academic performance substantially at the College.
Her sense of separation from her family is repeated in many first-gen and low-income students’ reflections. (In fact, Princeton University Press has just published an illuminating book on the subject: Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility, by Jennifer M. Morton.) Because she enrolled as second-year student, Harvard did not offer Esposito housing, so she found a $65 monthly attic rental in Somerville (barely within her $100 monthly budget), and had to navigate “hunger and loneliness many a time,” atop the new academic demands and separation from her disapproving parents.
Nor was such emotional turmoil confined to decades long ago, or a student coming to Cambridge from a relatively cloistered girlhood. Paul J. Martin ’94, who also read from his contribution to the volume, with evident emotion, recalled the continuing tensions as his experience in the College changed him:
Undergraduate life at Harvard was overridingly full of discovery and self-actualization. However, at college, there were parts of my life that I held back, ways that I couldn’t fully relate, and personas that I tried on but just weren’t me. At the same time, coming home [to Hialeah, Florida] semester after semester was increasingly difficult, because I no longer felt fully understood by my family and hometown friends. My personal and intellectual growth was leading me beyond the boundaries of my community—and my family—and I struggled to stay connected while honoring my newly discovered circles, interests, and pursuits. My first reaction—and action—was to isolate from my past, seeing my new self as evolved and therefore the best self to embrace….I didn’t have the opportunity to discuss these feelings with others experiencing similar conflict, or to name that conflict and pain. I was experiencing what it was to be first-generation, but I could not identify it. There was no vocabulary, no community, no voice. With years, I managed to integrate my experiences and embrace the entirety of my truth.
That sense of missing voice and agency motivated Jennings to found the first-gen SIG. As he recalled painfully in his introduction to the new volume:
When I enrolled at Harvard in 1981, I did not yet have the words I needed.
The term “first generation” did not exist. “Scholarship kids” like me seemed to be few and far between, in part because we were—like most gay students (also like me)—in the closet, afraid to reveal our true selves. We felt like somewhat unwelcome guests at the world’s most fabulous dinner party, guests who (often literally) did not know which fork to use, guests who were terrified that—if we used the wrong fork—we would be revealed as unworthy and would be cast out of the Garden back to the trailer parks and public housing developments and slums from which we came.
When I decided to found First Generation Harvard Alumni in 2012, it was because I wanted to do my part in breaking the silence that has for so long pervaded issues of class at Harvard University.
Daniel M. Lobo ’14, now president of FGHA, illuminated how some of those constraints might persist into the current decade, shaping a student’s contemporary undergraduate experience. He described his approach to college in terms that might surprise families where higher education is the expectation and elaborate preparation for success the norm. As he wrote and read aloud:
I didn’t make the most informed decision to come to Harvard. I came for two reasons: I knew it would be the most affordable option if I could get in [a welcome change from the financial situation Esposito faced in the 1970s], and I knew it would open the most doors after graduation. My decision was entirely economically motivated as I sought to maximize my income potential and upward social mobility. There was no consideration of student life, or academic experience, or dining hall food, or any of the other hallmarks of a residential undergraduate experience—my lived experience meant that I didn’t know to optimize for those things. “You got to Harvard and you’re going to be a public-school teacher? How are you going to explain that to Mami and Dada?” I thought. A seemingly selfish passion was weighed down by a vast indebtedness to the people who sacrificed to get me to this point.
As Brandon Buell ’20, president of Harvard Primus, observed in his prefatory essay, as of last spring there were about 1,000 first-gen undergraduates: 15 percent of the College cohort. He continued:
Ours is a community that spans racial, sexual, and cultural identities to perhaps be the most diverse one on campus, and we make Harvard all the richer for it. Our presence informs other students and faculty, alike, of what it means to overcome adversity; our tenacious spirits exert the pressure that further molds Harvard into an institution truly committed to equity and inclusion; but most importantly, our successes demonstrate to every aspiring child for whom education has not just been an academic challenge, but also a social one, that they are capable of anything.…By creating spaces for the conversation, [the First Generation Student Union] has furthered the rhetoric of diversity to encapsulate first-generation and socioeconomic identities—providing words to express the struggles our students face, and helping them to realize they are not alone.
Attention has been paid—and not just in the luncheon presentation on November 8. In a “special greeting” in the volume, President Lawrence S. Bacow recalled his participation in an event as part of the new pre-orientation program for first-generation students. Writing now, he said:
Every person admitted to Harvard should feel free to take full advantage of everything our unparalleled institution has to offer. This extraordinarily moving collection of stories and voices is essential to conversations about the past, present, and future of the University, and it shines a light on where we must improve. I will do my utmost in the years to come to ensure that those who we welcome into our community are embraced and supported—and I hope you will join me in that effort.