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November 21, 2014

First-generation issues in focus

On Tuesday, Kevin Jennings, the founder of the Harvard First Generation Alumni group, discussed how elite colleges often fail to adequately accommodate first-generation college students and what can be done to correct that weakness. The talk was sponsored by the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance and University of Chicago Quest Scholars.

Jennings, who was the first person in his family to attend college, described coming to Harvard from a poor family that moved around the American South. After graduation, he worked as a teacher, an activist, and as an assistant deputy secretary in the Obama administration's Department of Education. As a teacher, he founded the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and is now currently the director of the non-profit Arcus Foundation.

“This is not new, the concept of first-generation college students—I was a first-generation college student 30 years ago. But there is a new consciousness. In fact, the term ‘first-generation college student’ wasn’t used five years ago. It’s a brand new term,” Jennings said.

In Jennings’s experience, first-generation students face challenges, from their applications to finding a job after graduation. These include fewer resources and places to turn to for help or information. Some apparently “innocent questions”—“Where did your parents go to school?” or “What do your parents do?”—can be difficult to answer. Jennings’ mother worked at McDonalds, which he said did not particularly impress Harvard alumni.

Harvard’s First Generation Alumni group was created to overcome some of these difficulties, providing mentors to overcome the information deficit and help first-generation students build their networks.

Before taking questions, Jennings ended his presentation by saying that he admires the first-generation students he works with, despite, and to an extent because of, the challenges some of them face.

“It’s true that [first-generation students] come in with some disadvantages because we don’t have some of the privileges that students with more affluent parents have. But that is just evidence of how super and how heroic first-generation students are… Their ability to succeed in a system that is not frankly set up for them to succeed,” Jennings said.

In response to a question about how colleges can work with first-generation students, Jennings noted that he was happy to see the University of Chicago had an office for LGBT student life but wondered, “Where’s the office for first generation students?... We know these programs work. They work for LGBT students; they work for students of color. We need to have it for first generation students. So that would be where I would start.”

A student in the audience who works with the SDA responded, “We’re trying.”

SDA co-coordinator and fourth-year Danielle Wilson arranged the talk after meeting with Jennings over the summer.

“I was hoping he would give us some concrete ideas and asks of our administration. Most of  us know what it means to be a first generation student, but I was hoping he could give some voice to some of the experiences that a lot of us can identify with,” Wilson said. Attendance at the talk, which filled the community lounge at 5710 Woodlawn, exceeded Wilson’s expectation.

“[The attendees] thanked me for it. I’m like, ‘Thank him for it.’ People seemed to really like what he had to say. A lot of people really seemed to identify with what he was talking about. It really seemed to start some momentum and some conversations that I think are really important,” she said.

Wilson and SDA plan to address similar issues with a discussion series over winter quarter.

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