“This Entire Campus Belongs to You”

Harvard begins a program to acclimate freshmen from “historically marginalized communities.”

FYRE’s student steering committee Photograph courtesy of FYRE

Sade Abraham’s timing could not have been better. 

When she arrived at the Graduate School of Education for a one-year master’s program in 2017, she began inquiring about what Harvard does to support first-generation and low-income students. The first in her family to attend a four-year university, Abraham knew the adjustment to college life could be a culture shock, exacerbated by the unique challenges of attending an elite institution like Harvard. She wanted to learn how she could support efforts to ease that transition. (See this report on Anthony Jack’s research on low-income students.) 

Her queries landed her in the office of Katherine Steele, who heads the College’s suite of pre-orientation programs for incoming freshmen, on the same day that Harvard posted a job for a director for its newest offering, FYRE (First Year Retreat and Experience).

“It was divine intervention,” Abraham mused.

FYRE was developed to help first-generation, low-income, and other students from “historically marginalized communities”—who often arrive on campus lacking the social capital of their affluent peers—acclimate to Harvard. This August, 100 College freshmen will arrive three days before the official move-in for the class of 2022 to participate in the inaugural offering of the program, an experience that will include academic orientation, advising, and social events with peers. 

The program is at capacity after receiving more than 200 applications. (About 17 percent of the 2022 admitted class is first-generation.) FYRE leaders collaborated with the Admissions Office to identify and recruit students who would benefit from the program. 

Abraham says FYRE is meant to address some of the unique “rabbit holes” first-generation and low-income students often fall into when adjusting to an environment like Harvard. “I think the nuances and the research I’ve studied on paper about first-gen and low-income students really come to life in a very different way when you’re thinking about students in a high-achieving context,” she said. “Being first-gen myself and now identifying as one of those high-achieving students, I’m trying to create something for other students like that. We ran into the same rabbit holes—unrelenting standards, having a perfectionist mindset, not knowing when to say we’re overwhelmed. It’s been interesting seeing us overcome the things that we’re hoping to identify and support other students with in this program.”

A Slow Start

A little over a year ago, it seemed as though a program like FYRE wouldn’t launch at Harvard. Proposals to create a bridge program for first-generation students were, until last summer, rejected by the College.

The idea for a program to help first-generation and low-income students master the “hidden curriculum” of Harvard began to pick up steam in 2015, when Savannah Fritz ’17 submitted a proposal to the Undergraduate Council for a “Freshman Enrichment Program” (FEP) that would bring low-income students to campus before the start of the semester to meet College administrators, receive academic advice, and learn how to navigate support resources like the Office of Career Services and the financial-aid office.

Steele later proposed the First Year Institute, which was modeled after the FEP. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana rejected that proposal in 2016, however, arguing in a joint op-ed with then dean of freshmen Thomas Dingman that the program was too “narrowly focused” and that a “holistic post-matriculation approach” was better suited to help students make the transition to Harvard. 

Khurana faced significant criticism from students following that decision. Last summer, he announced that Harvard would pilot a pre-orientation program to serve students from “historically marginalized communities.”

Andrew Perez ’19, who previously served as the president of the First Generation Student Union and is now one of the co-chairs of FYRE, said the journey since then has been a whirlwind: “Having gone from a year ago, hearing about the acceptance of FYRE, as well as the semester before that with the denial and the rejection, being here right now is beyond exciting,” he said. “Hearing how excited students are about the program and talking to upperclassmen who are telling me, ‘I wish I had this’ makes everything worth it.”

Dining in Widener  

FYRE’s curriculum focuses on four different types of “capital” that program leaders believe students need to thrive at Harvard, Abraham said. They include:

  • academic capital, or the know-how to navigate Harvard’s academic environment; 
  • navigational capital, or being able to access Harvard’s many resources;
  • social capital, or connections with peers and mentors; and 
  • agency capital, or a sense of pride and belonging.

Abraham looked to research conducted by University of Michigan professor of education Tara Yosso, whose article “Whose Culture Has Capital?” formed a jumping-off point for the program’s curriculum. Yosso argues that traditional interpretations of cultural capital consider communities of color to be culturally deficient, or lacking certain types of cultural capital. She advocates instead for a lens that looks at the array of “knowledge, skills, abilities, and contracts” that socially marginalized groups have. Abraham borrowed some of the types of capital Yosso identifies in the article for the FYRE program. FYRE leaders also consulted similar pre-orientation programs at schools like Princeton and Brown, which can run the gamut from multi-week introductions to academic skills to a week of general orientation to the college. 

Headlining the program is a welcome dinner in the open reading room of Widener Library, where students will meet one other, share stories, and hear from University faculty members and administrators about the journey that brought them to Harvard. Perez said program leaders are preparing a “book-giving” program, where FYRE’s participants will each receive one book signed by a professor or administrator. 

“I’m really interested in fostering an atmosphere and environment where we feel that this entire campus belongs to you as much as, say, someone who is an eighth-generation legacy.” 

“We’re asking 100 faculty and administrators, those who were voted on by students as great mentors and people, to tell us what book transformed their life,” Perez said. “They will get the book, sign it, and write a little note, and every FYRE participant will get a book from a professor or administrator. Or from, like, Faust. Or Bacow.”

Abraham said FYRE is hosting the dinner as a way of introducing students to a space she believes they may find intimidating. “As a first-gen myself, I’m a Lamont girl. I’m just getting around to using Widener,” she said. “We’re really trying to work on the idea of all spaces at Harvard being for all students.” 

She recounted the first half of her year at Harvard, when she would pass the Harvard Art Museums on her walk home to Somerville, and wonder when she would receive “an invitation” to go inside. “And I was like, ‘What am I talking about?’ I had an ID card! I think there are a lot of folks who think they need an invitation to spaces on campus, and think ‘this doesn’t belong to me.’ I’m really interested in fostering an atmosphere and environment where we feel that this entire campus belongs to you as much as, say, someone who is an eighth-generation legacy.”

Acclimating to Harvard

The program is built around a “family” model that some other pre-orientation programs like the First-Year International Program use. It pairs two “leaders,” both upperclassmen, with 10 FYRE participants for the length of the program and encourages them to remain in contact during the academic year. Often, the older students will become a source of advice for navigating Harvard, helping younger program participants access its diffuse network of resources, and offering personal advice.

Throughout March and April, FYRE received more than 60 applications from undergraduates for 16 spots. Perez and James Bedford ’20 (the other FYRE co-chair) interviewed candidates over the span of a week, deliberated for eight hours, and compiled more than 30,000 words of notes before making their decisions.

The upperclassmen who were chosen will lead FYRE participants as they attend a mix of academic and navigational workshops, held by Harvard offices, designed to help them fortify the academic skills needed to tackle college-level assignments, as well as résumé workshops with the Office of Career Services. To teach students the navigational skills they need to access Harvard’s resources, FYRE plans to hold a “speed-dating” session where students can meet representatives from offices like University Health Services, the Bureau of Study Counsel, and Counseling and Mental Health Services.

Abraham said a Faculty Open Mic Night is also scheduled—“Think White House Correspondents dinner, less politics, more laughter”—where professors will speak about encountering success and failure in their professional lives.

“One of the things we’re really working on is the narratives of success and failure, so that when you run into success—which you will—you know what it looks like,” she said. 

Perez said FYRE has created a newsletter it will use to communicate updates about the program and tips about preparing for college with participants throughout the summer. FYRE team leaders and “program associates”—undergraduates who may not serve as leaders, but indicated interest in helping out with the program—are creating a “Guide to Harvard,” similar to the pamphlet the Freshman Dean’s Office sends students each year but tailored to the backgrounds represented among program participants. The team will also host “FYREside chats” over the summer where program participants can connect with student leaders via Google Hangouts and ask about anything that’s on their minds.

Because of conflicting start dates, students participating in FYRE cannot participate in most of the other pre-orientation offerings like the Freshman Urban Program or the First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP). But students who are interested in taking part in Fall Clean-Up (FCU)—which pays incoming freshmen to clean dorms around campus in the week before school begins—may split their time between FYRE and FCU. 

Still, Abraham said FYRE has been looking for ways to collaborate with existing programs. She said one such collaboration between FYRE and the FOP is in the works that may see FYRE participants attend an outdoors retreat during Labor Day Weekend. (She said she believes Labor Day Weekend—during which many undergraduates leave campus—may be an alienating experience for first-generation and low-income students who lack the means to travel or the connections and destinations to make such a trip so soon after arriving at Harvard.

FYRE also intends to hold social events and workshops throughout the year for participants and the “extended FYRE family,” including those incoming students who expressed interest in being involved with the program but may not have been offered seats. 

“I think FYRE is positioning itself to be a unique space on campus that will hopefully continue with further conversations throughout the year,” Perez said. “I think with students who feel more prepared to advocate on their own behalf, for students to feel empowered to say, ‘I deserve this thing that will help me live and survive Harvard’—that makes a world of difference.”

Brandon J. Dixon ’19 is this magazine’s 2018 Daniel Steiner Undergraduate Editorial Fellow.

Read more articles by: Brandon J. Dixon

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