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Stanford students help smooth the path for incoming first-gen, low-income arrivals

Many first-generation, low-income students have a difficult time adjusting to college life. At Stanford, the student-run First Generation, Low Income Partnership focuses on building a community for these students.

Courtesy Jennifer Telschow students at a workshop

The student-run FLIP helps first-generation students adjust to the "culture shock" of college. At an event organized by FLIP, students from all backgrounds shared their thoughts about class identity.

Stanford junior Leonardo Leal is a first-generation student who made his way to the university despite a difficult childhood. When he immigrated to the United States from Mexico at the age of 12, he didn't speak a word of English. He was determined to go to college – a first in his family – even during the periods in high school when he was homeless.

Like a lot of other first-generation, low-income students across the country, Leal found it an adjustment being on campus surrounded by students whose parents had more education and financial means.

"There are students that come from really privileged backgrounds who … were almost prepared from birth to go to a nice university," said Leal. "And there are other people like me who really had to struggle to even go to school."

Today, Leal is studying in Paris through Stanford's Bing Overseas Studies Program.

Abroad or at home, first-gen and low-income students get support from the university – beginning with generous financial aid that can reach 100 percent of costs – as well as comfort and guidance from administrators other students.

Reaching out to frosh

The student-run First Generation, Low Income Partnership (FLIP) helps incoming students adjust to the unfamiliar environment of college. Stanford senior and FLIP co-president Jennifer Telschow describes the feelings of arriving first-generation students as "culture shock."

Founded in 2010, FLIP works to develop programs for first-generation and low-income students – connecting them through dinners and events – as well as promote campus-wide conversations about class. FLIP sponsors a "Big Sib/Lil Sib" mentorship program in which first-generation upperclassmen are matched with incoming freshmen, based on common interests. The Big Sibs help their Lil Sibs with all aspects of college life.

Leal was a Lil Sib his freshman year. "It was very helpful and it made things much better," he said.

Stanford has long supported education for first-generation students. According to director of diversity and first-generation programs Tommy Woon, approximately 1,000 undergraduates now at Stanford are the first in their families to attend college. Over 75 percent of those students are people of color.

Across the country, many first-generation and low-income students feel isolated when they first arrive at college. Woon works to make sure they feel welcome at Stanford and are able to participate in many of the same activities as their more financially advantaged peers (for example, discounts to Senior Formal and programs on how to successfully cultivate faculty and staff understanding and support).

The Stanford program has also offered first-gen undergraduates the opportunity to shadow local alumni at their workplace.

Though FLIP helped Leal connect with other students of similar backgrounds, he sometimes still had trouble connecting with more privileged students. "It's hard for me to tell someone what I had to go through," Leal said.

At a FLIP event in February, Class Confessions invited students from all backgrounds to anonymously share secrets about times they attempted to hide their class identity. One student made excuses not to go out: "I can't tell them that spending $20 is a lot for me."

FLIP has an ambassador program in which students can sign up to foster cross-class conversations among students within their dorms. "I think starting these conversations at a place like Stanford with people who are said to be future leaders is very important," said Telschow.

Leal could be one of those future leaders. He aspires to go on to law or business school. He wants to "show people that even if you're not wealthy and even if you are born with certain limitations, you can always, if you work really hard, achieve greater things. It's just a matter of keeping calm and being positive."

Cynthia McKelvey is an intern at the Stanford News Service.