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‘We find each other’: Students open up about the first-generation low-income experience

Illustrated by Blaise Willis

By Morgan Gage     3/9/21 9:37pm

For students who are the first in their family to attend college and come from low-income backgrounds, the transition to Rice can be especially tough — they might not have the benefit of advice from parents and family who have gone through college before, or the assurance of financial support from their families. However, many first-generation low-income students have found support and community at Rice, often among other FGLI students.

The Thresher spoke with six FGLI students about navigating their time at Rice.

Finding community at Rice

At Rice, organizations such as QuestBridge — a national organization that partners with colleges and universities to provide educational opportunities for FGLI students — help foster connections between members of the FGLI community. Channing Wang, the QuestBridge vice president, said that events such as workshops covering topics like the financial aid process and off-campus housing questions have been important in connecting the FGLI community. (Editor’s Note: Channing Wang is the Thresher's photo editor.)

One event that fosters community for FGLI students is QuestGiving, an annual event typically held over Thanksgiving break. It is an opportunity for FGLI students who remain on campus to connect with the community and celebrate the holiday together.

“Unfortunately, that couldn’t be done this year, but I remember the first two years it was probably one of the most attended ones ‘cause there would be a lot of people who would decide to stay on campus over breaks,” Wang, a Duncan College junior, said.

Luis Leal, a Hanszen College sophomore, said that he found that first-generation students tend to find each other and become friends on campus even outside of a formal network. Although he is not a part of QuestBridge, he has found ways to connect with other FGLI students.

“I wasn’t sure how many [first-generation students] there would be, because I know [Rice] is a very prestigious school,” Leal said. “But Rice has a very welcoming community, and all the first-gens were really nice and proud with [FGLI] shirts. The first week at the first-gen meeting, everyone was super happy to be here.”

This hasn’t been the case for everyone. Juan Rubio, a Hanszen College sophomore, said he wouldn't necessarily call FGLI students at Rice a community at all.

“I hesitate to call it community, because I don’t think it constitutes real community. I find community in other ways, and sometimes it intersects with being FGLI very well. For example, the Hispanic affinity group — plenty of us are FGLI,” Rubio said. “But a focused sense of FGLI community, I just have not found. We find each other, but I would not say we are actively supporting each other. We support those friends, but we’re not formally codified, like, ‘We’re FGLI and supporting each other.’”

This may be in part due to a concern that Rubio shares with other students: no centralized network for FGLI students to connect. Although QuestBridge connects many FGLI students to each other, students apply during high school to the organization as a method of applying to college partner schools, one of them being Rice, in place of the normal admissions process. Because of this, many FGLI students are not involved in QuestBridge, and there is no broader centralized network for the FGLI community.

“I would appreciate [a way to communicate with other FGLI students],” Rubio said. “It sucks, because I hear about people getting help in their QuestBridge groups.”

Creating community can be hard for students who may feel hesitant to identify strongly with the label of FGLI. Gabriela Perez, a Wiess College sophomore, said that she sometimes feels uncomfortable labeling herself that way.

“[Being FGLI] is obviously a part of who I am and defines many of my experiences, especially at Rice, but it isn't the only thing,” Perez said. “When I am in FGLI circles I find that the central focus is being FGLI, and, yes, this has a time and place, but that's the biggest reason why I haven't found community. I don't want to be thinking about it all the time.”

Rubio said that being FGLI often means feeling less connected to Rice peers who don’t share that experience. 

“People talk about, say, their trips to Vienna over spring break. That’s not something I would ever be able to do,” Rubio said. “[Or] the research they did last summer, which I didn’t even know was an option until this semester. Other people have those things in common that I simply can’t comment on.”

Because of these differences, FGLI students expressed sometimes feeling at a disadvantage when it comes to extracurricular pursuits.

“The issue of disparity is that FGLI students don’t have the social capital and the knowledge that they need to look for [academic and professional opportunities],” Rubio said. 

Despite challenges that come with being FGLI, several of the students the Thresher spoke with said they feel like they have found their place at Rice. Wang said that becoming more involved with the FGLI community has been a part of his Rice experience, but he felt connected to Rice before that.

“When I came to visit [Rice before matriculating], all people that I met were very genuine, and even if someone was, say, three income brackets above me, you wouldn't necessarily feel that based on their personality, which I feel like is more important,” Wang said.

Financial assistance at Rice

Two of Rice’s primary systems of financial support for its students are the Access and Opportunity Portal, an avenue for students to request significant financial assistance for unexpected expenses, textbooks and more, and the Magister’s Funds, residential college-specific financial aid that helps students with smaller expenses such as going to dinner with their classmates, paying for events like Esperanza or buying college merchandise. These funds are supplemented by other resources on campus such as the food pantry, the Office of Student Success Initiatives, as well as academic and social resources such as academic fellows, peer academic and career advisors, and more.

Wang said that he has had positive experiences reaching out to Rice for financial assistance.

“I used the Magister’s Fund my freshman year just to buy groceries, because I wanted to eat something different over Thanksgiving,” Wang said. “Recently, they [established] the Access and Opportunity Portal. They helped me to fund my gas money when I drove down here over the summer.”

Another resource Wang mentioned having positive experiences with was the Office of Student Success Initiatives. The office offers advising services, connects students to other campus resources and runs Rice Firsts, a mentoring program for first-generation students to connect with each other.

“If you can’t get something you want to get done, reach out to SSI,” Wang said. “You can sit down and talk with someone, and they’re usually very good at what they do.”

Leal said he found resources easy to navigate upon coming to Rice.

“I do think that a lot of the [accessibility] programs are very easily accessible,” Leal said. “You go to Rice and on your first week, you will find your place. You will find where to go for help.”

Despite the existence of these funds, some students said that understanding and accessing the financial resources available to them has been a challenge due to a lack of awareness about what is available and what the resources are for.

While many FGLI students end up friends with each other, Karen Martinez-Perez, a McMurtry College freshman, said that her friends are not low-income, something that has made finding resources more difficult.

“I just didn’t really hear about [resources like AOP] that much, and I think part of it is my friends don’t use it,” Martinez-Perez said. “They’re not low-income. I feel like [being FGLI] isn’t really talked about, like I don’t introduce myself as [first-generation or low-income], so I could know more people than I realize. It’s just not really a topic of conversation.”

Jessica Bowers, the associate director of SSI, said that the office works tirelessly to foster community through COVID-19 — which, she says, has been difficult online — as well as to make sure students are aware of and comfortable with reaching out to the resources available.

“Our office works hard to normalize and encourage others to normalize help-seeking behaviors. The most impactful way we encourage this is through amplifying student stories,” Bowers said. “Sharing how other F[G]LI students have experienced and overcome challenges around imposter syndrome and seeking help are building blocks of our daily work.”

One of the misconceptions that some FGLI students want to clear up for others is that utilizing financial resources at Rice is only for dire circumstances rather than to enrich the Rice experience overall. Two students mentioned a trend of FGLI students not reaching out to resources available.

“I want resources to be accessible, but I also wish students would take advantage of them more and feel less guilty [reaching out],” Wang said. “It’s there, and it’s meant for us.”

Wang attributes this trend to FGLI students often taking on more responsibilities before they come to Rice.

“It’s probably because many of us are so used to being very strong-willed, independent and doing things on our own, whatever it might be,” Wang said. “Like taking care of family or doing our parents' government forms. There’s so many things we learn to do for ourselves, so I feel like that transferred over to, ‘Oh, I don’t want to ask for help. I feel like I have the will to do it myself.'”

Martinez-Perez noticed a similar trend with herself and others.

“In my experience and people I know, we have a tendency to figure out a way before asking for help. Like, I try to do everything I can to get by and do it myself,” Martinez-Perez said. “Help is the last resource, which contributes to the fact that I have yet to reach out for any kind of financial assistance from Rice.”

Martinez-Perez said that while she is confident that she could figure out how to reach out for and likely receive financial assistance from Rice, she always feels like she can figure things out without it.

“I’ve found that when you are from low-income families, it’s easy for you to imagine and relate to other people who are from even lower-income families than you and then are like, ‘Support them first,’” Martinez-Perez said. “You know, my mom would always tell me, ‘You can figure it out. You’re strong. You can figure it out, and, then, maybe if you need help then ask.’”

Adjusting to academics

Difficulties for FGLI students may often involve finances, but that is far from the only challenge they face. Adjusting to academics with different educational and family backgrounds from many of their peers was something that came up for multiple students the Thresher spoke to. 

“One of the harder things for me was getting into these hard classes, because I'm from more of a low-income [school],” Leal said. “We didn't have [an] education that [most Rice students] have, and, sometimes, I catch myself falling behind.”

For Kenechukwu Onubogu, a McMurtry College freshman, adjusting to academics was also a difficulty. A first-generation and international student, Onubogu said that the education system in her home country, Nigeria, was quite different from what is expected at Rice which made it difficult to adjust to academics.

“I obviously had the feeling that [Rice] was going to be intense, but expected to have a lot of time for social events,” Onubogu said. “Coming to Rice is much more intense than it’s painted.”

Upon coming to Rice, Rubio found that many of his professors expected him to be caught up on material that he never covered in high school.

“I started having to catch up a lot to try to inch closer to the starting line,” Rubio said. “I just came in at a disadvantage.”

Bowers said that SSI is aware of these challenges and encourages students to reach out to the office for assistance.

“This is a trend that we see across the board. If [adjusting to academics] is something that a student is finding to be a challenge, they can certainly set up a meeting with us to discuss their situation in detail,” Bowers said. “SSI is here to help create a roadmap to academic and personal success.”

In adjusting to Rice academics, Onubogu met with an Academic Fellow from her college to get assistance with her classes and has also used resources such as the Center for Career Development. She said that her familiarity with these resources was mostly because of taking UNIV 110: First Year Foundations, a course that aims to address issues that freshmen students may face through classroom discussion and by connecting them to campus departments and resources along with other activities including reflection and self-assessments.

“The resources are there, yes, they just expect you to know. They’re not even advertised at all,” Onubogu said. “I wouldn’t have known many of these things if I hadn’t been in [UNIV 110] last semester. People underestimate the importance of repeated information. It’s easy for even the information that is sent out to get lost in our inbox.” 

Many students the Thresher spoke with shared this sentiment.

“The extent of resource advertising was just emails when I first got here,” Rubio said. “I think I speak for everyone here. We get a flurry of emails all the time, especially when we first got here, so it was super buried. I didn’t know that was just the culture, that emails just keep coming and coming.”

For Rubio, support from peers has helped him adjust to college academics, and was a large part of why he chose to attend Rice in the first place.

“If I [direct message] someone that I’m having a problem over GroupMe, they will, nine times out of ten, oblige me,” Rubio said. “I think it’s just the culture. It’s something that really helped me academically.”

When it came to academic accommodations in response to COVID-19, Perez said that she felt other students were speaking on behalf of FGLI students.

“I feel like people at Rice are really weird about FGLI students. They talk about us like a group that needs to be saved and needs special attention or help, but I'm really just a student who happens to have a lower economic status,” Perez said. “This was especially apparent last year during academic accommodation conversations when students who I knew had a higher economic status than me would claim that low-income students need a universal pass/fail, but never talked to me, an actual low-income student about what I really needed.”

By speaking about her experiences, Perez said that she hopes that the Rice community will listen to FGLI students moving forward.

“Maybe people will stop being so weird about what being FGLI means, and, for once, just listen,” Perez said.

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