First-Generation Challenges

New alumni mentorship program aims to support undergraduates.

Luis Ubiñas ’85, M.B.A. ’89, grew up in the South Bronx during the 1970s. His father had died young, so Ubiñas and his four siblings lived with their mother, who made money as a seamstress. At that time, the neighborhood resembled bombed-out Dresden: buildings burned amid piles of rubble and garbage. Poverty and drugs were rampant. Most days brought a simple struggle: to get to and from school safely. “You train yourself to be successful in the moment,” Ubiñas reports, “and hope that the accumulation of those successes leads to something good later.”

An ambitious, hard worker, Ubiñas landed at Harvard thanks to a series of scholarships and a guidance counselor who, sensing his capacity, told him, “Harvard makes leaders.” Ubiñas was simply glad Harvard made meals. “It was the first place I was assured of having breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he notes. “Other kids would complain about different things. But for me, Harvard kept me safe, housed, and fed. And they taught me. I thought, ‘This is good.’”

Ubiñas spent 18 years at McKinsey & Company before being named president in 2007 of one of the nation’s most powerful philanthropic organizations, the Ford Foundation. (Its offices are about eight miles down the East River from where he was raised.) “It’s hard for many to understand the transformative nature of going to Harvard as a first-generation student,” he asserts. “It doesn’t just educate you, it changes the trajectory of your life, your family’s life—and maybe even the life of your community.”

Not every first-generation student’s experience at Harvard is as dramatic. But the sorts of challenges many of them face—ranging from more acute academic and financial pressures to social/cultural isolation to a general disconnection between their lives at Harvard and at home—are complex enough to warrant a new Shared Interest Group (SIG), First Generation Harvard, which aims to increase alumni and institutional support for these undergraduates (defined as those whose parents did not graduate from a four-year college or university).

Founded by Kevin Jennings ’85 (a close friend of Ubiñas), the SIG has launched a pilot mentoring program this fall that matches about 20 alumni with first-generation freshmen on a voluntary basis. Jennings was a first-generation student himself. “I fulfilled all the stereotypes,” he jokes now, having grown up in rural North Carolina in a trailer, the son of Southern Baptist evangelists. Ashamed of his background then, he hid it. Before arriving in Cambridge he studied Harvard’s view books to see how kids dressed, and then spent his summer earnings (working the overnight shift at an ice-packing warehouse) on clothes. “Except I looked a lot preppier than everyone else because I had also read The Official Preppy Handbook and didn’t realize it was a satire,” he adds. “I didn’t want anyone to think I didn’t belong.”

The first six months at Harvard are critical for these students, he says, in terms of orienting them to the culture and establishing communication around support, resources, and opportunities. Last February, Jennings and fellow “first-gens” involved with the new SIG—Paris Woods ’06, Ed.M. ’08, and Precious E. Eboigbe ’07—led a focus group with students from the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) , the University’s push to make higher education more accessible. Among the findings was a general sense among the undergraduates of feeling terribly underprepared academically. “It comes as a big shock because these kids are by a million miles the academic superstars of their high schools,” Jennings explains. “At Harvard they get their first Expos paper back and it looks like someone stabbed them because there’s red ink all over it.” Woods, who grew up in an African-American neighborhood of St. Louis and attended a magnet high school with an equal number of white and black students, recalls that at Harvard, she had to adjust to the “sheer amount of reading and the level of individual analysis and thought required in papers and discussion sections. In high school,” she says, “I was used to there being a right or wrong answer, rather than being evaluated on how well I could articulate an opinion.”

Also unfamiliar to many first-gens is the possibility of a closer relationship with teachers who, at home, are generally authority figures “around whom you sit down and shut up,” reports Jennings, now CEO of Be The Change, a nonprofit that creates national campaigns around social problems. “I remember going in to see Simon Schama [then Harvard professor of art history and history] because I guess he liked my term paper. But I thought I had done something wrong and that every question he asked was designed to trap me. I answered everything with one word, ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ because I was scared to death.” For Jennings, there was the added fear that if he did not do well, the College would eliminate his scholarship: “There is a sense among many first-generation students that you are always on probation.”

The focus group also showed that many students feel immense pressure around family finances, or expectations/reactions at home. Jennings worked 20 hours a week, often sending money to his mother. “Kids who were the family earners actually feel guilty about being away at school,” he reports. Some first-generation students hide the fact they go to Harvard when back in their old neighborhoods, wary of arousing envy or even hostility. “Going to Harvard definitely created a disconnect between me and people back home,” says Wood, who also sent money to her family during college. “Whereas classmates could find communities of selective-college grads among their family and friends, I felt like I had been placed on a pedestal as ‘the girl who went to Harvard.’ It was and still is a tremendous responsibility.” This summer she worked as an education pioneer at the Broad Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that recruits, trains, and supports leaders to help transform urban school systems.

While at Harvard, first-gen student Marie Appel ’12 completed an independent research study on assessing and addressing the needs of students like her. Her recommendations included forming an alumni support group (akin to the new SIG), increasing accessibility to pre-orientation programs, and raising awareness on campus among students and faculty members about this “invisible minority that does not feel empowered to speak up about who they are.”

Growing up in a farming town of 300 people near Syracuse, New York, Appel came into contact with college-bound teenagers only through her extracurricular passion: sailing (which her parents drove her to a country club to learn). “They are the ones who told me about studying for the AP exams and how to prepare for college,” she recalls. “When I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to go to Harvard, he asked me what state it was in, then urged me to go into the armed forces.”

At Harvard, Appel had three roommates, all legacy students, including one from New York City and another whose father was a governor. One of them asked if she lived in a trailer. She learned of the classification “first-generation student” only when an upperclassman tapped her for a series of interviews on the subject. She remembers “crying during that, realizing for the first time that that’s why I was different.” She is now following a long-time dream of becoming a teacher through training at Teach For America in Mississippi.

First-gen student Cherone Duggan ’14 (one of only about seven undergraduates from Ireland) was bored in high school. She came to Harvard’s summer program using money she’d earned by working since the age of 12. There she realized that Harvard and the American college system would offer her more of the broad, liberal-arts education she sought, yet it meant leaving her family, including four younger siblings, who jokingly complain she has set the “college bar” way too high for them. The experience has widened overall communication gaps. “It’s hard to explain to them what is going on here when they don’t have the immediate understanding of what classes or degrees mean or how they progress,” she says. “That includes internships and navigating the system of what a college degree would offer—what are the job prospects? How do you go about that process?”

Much of her new practical knowledge has come from her international host family in Boston, whom she has found invaluable. Kevin Mulcahy is an Irish native, and Diane (McPartlin) Mulcahy ’88, M.P.P. ’94, has the College experience to guide Duggan, helping her acclimate not only to America, but also to Harvard’s idiosyncrasies and social structures. The couple also helped her get an internship at a writing organization, which led to her becoming a student proctor at Harvard Summer School.

A social-studies concentrator, Duggan is fully enjoying the breadth of her education by also diving into philosophy as a Mellon Mays fellow, and has plans to go to graduate school. “I see the chance to come here and be educated as the chance to do anything,” she says, “because my parents didn’t get to do whatever else they wanted; their jobs were all about being a source of money. I felt if I were to come here and do that [focus only on a preprofessional track] that would be counterproductive.” She feels both the freedom and fear that comes with breaking out. “The future is completely uncertain for me,” she says. “Nobody I know at home has come to this situation in life before.” (For more about Duggan, now a Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow at this magazine, see “Summer Reflections.”)

As college progresses, Jennings concurs, “these students are disadvantaged in two ways: their understanding of career paths can be limited and they do not have a network of professionals [to call on]. We are hoping these mentors can guide students and make up that gap.”

For Luis Ubiñas, whose son is applying to Harvard this year, the goal is much less about changing others’ views of the “invisible minority” or increasing external support services. “I would like a narrative to be established in the minds of these students that there is something special about being the first person in your family to go to college, to Harvard, and you should not let it pass,” he says. He maintains that the financial aid he received from Harvard and other institutions is a form of trust that he took very seriously and that he has worked harder in light of it.

“There will always be undergraduates with more or less money in their wallets, but there is nothing Harvard can do to control that,” he concludes. “And there was value in my having an empty wallet. It reminded me that I had a different purpose, to create a different future for my family and myself. Being there did not mean I had arrived, it meant I had a bridge to go somewhere else.”

He wants first-gen students to fully absorb the fact that “the College can accept anyone in the country and it chose you. But then it is your job to make the most of it.”

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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