Low-income and first-generation students face unique challenges when selecting major

In late October, students used the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) email chat list to discuss an opinion column in The Daily (“Who Wants a Straight-A Student”). The article talked about approaching academics with a focus on following your passions, at the expense of GPA and practicality.

Based on the online debate, FLIP decided to host a panel discussion about financial considerations involved in selecting a major, especially as they apply to low-income students.

This issue is part of a broader national trend among first-generation and low-income college students, as expanded financial aid has increased socioeconomic diversity in higher education.

Stanford professor of psychology Hazel Markus recently published a study examining the challenges first-generation and low-income students face at elite universities, including Stanford. According to Markus, the main challenge is navigating the extensive choices that universities offer.

“The problem is that it’s hard to make a choice if you really don’t understand why you should major in a certain field, what it could lead to and what careers it could be related to,” Markus said. “That’s particularly true for many first-generation students.”

The concern about careers is often based on financial realities.

“First-gen and low-income students have to think a lot about the money associated with certain careers that comes from certain majors,” said FLIP co-president Omar Medina ’13. “If you’re thinking about supporting your family or maybe becoming the primary breadwinner, it limits you to certain majors, especially based on what people think about which majors lead to which careers.”

Eme Williams-Blake ’13, who served on FLIP’s November panel, said that her parents pushed her to study science because most of the highest-paying jobs in her home country of Trinidad and Tobago are in the sciences.

“I don’t feel strongly about switching to the humanities,” Williams-Blake, a civil and environmental engineering major, said. “But even if I did, [science] is what is realistic for me to do to support my family.”

Other students found different ways to reconcile the concerns between practicality and passions.

Aracely Mondragon ’13 said that she made the difficult decision to change from a pre-medicine track to comparative studies in race and ethnicity once she discovered she was more passionate about serving her community than studying medicine. She is now focused on Latina empowerment through writing.

“I feel like it’s really important to think about what your own vision of bettering yourself is,” Mondragon said. “It’s not strictly just upward mobility financially speaking — there’s other ways to really create this better life for yourself.”

Stephanie Liou ’13, who is majoring in science, technology and society, decided to separate her personal hobbies from her career.

“It doesn’t mean that you can’t be an artist or a writer or really passionate about Russian literature or whatever it is,” Liou said. “But it’s just that you simply don’t have the luxury of devoting all of your time to that and crossing your fingers, hoping that a job comes that way.”

Undergraduate Advising and Research Academic Director Cari Costanzo Kapur M.A. ’99 Ph.D. ’05, who moderated the panel and was herself a first-generation and low-income student, dispelled some of the concerns around job security. She said there is often a misconception that it is easier to have a secure job and earn money in math and science tracks, but in reality, those career choices aren’t always safer or more lucrative than others.

Kapur feels that these misconceptions often lead students to unnecessarily close the door on opportunities in other fields.

“There is a lot that can be gained from the social sciences and the humanities as well,” Kapur said. “There is something quite valuable to be gained from that type of coursework that is extremely applicable in the world, whatever career one chooses.”

For FLIP, the panel was part of an ongoing effort to address the challenges in choosing a major as well as raising awareness of the larger issues first-generation and low-income students face on campus.

“Part of the reason I wanted to bring up this discussion is that I don’t think that there is much being done,” Liou said. “Some things like race and religion are more visible just because you can tell, but class is something that traditionally in America we don’t talk about and there aren’t venues to talk about it.”

“There’s this perception on campus that no one is actually poor,” Williams-Blake said. “Somebody would say I’m not going to this concert that cost $5 because I’m broke, and you would hear everyone say, ‘You don’t have $5? What’s $5?’ [People] don’t recognize that there are people that legitimately don’t have [it].”

Williams-Blake said that notwithstanding FLIP’s efforts, the conversation doesn’t always reach a broad audience.

“We can try to generate discussion, but it’s hard to get people who don’t really care that much to come out and get involved,” Williams-Blake said. “The people who come are the people who feel affected by it.”

Williams-Blake noted that at campus diversity events such as Faces of Community, there is little discussion of socioeconomic diversity.

Despite the difficulty in addressing first-generation and low-income concerns among the broader community, Stanford has been expanding its support for these students. The Office of First-Gen and Diversity Programs, led by Dean Tommy Woon, was established in April 2011. According to Woon, the goal of this office is to provide accessible opportunities for students to be supported by other students, faculty and staff.

“We’re starting to build networks,” Woon said. “We have a list of 140 faculty and 120 staff members who have all expressed interest in first-gen students, and we are starting to hold [events].”

For the first time this summer, the Leland Scholars Program, a three-week academic summer bridge opportunity, was offered to incoming freshmen. The Student Affairs website says the goal was “to support those who come from under-resourced high schools and want early exposure to studying the sciences.”

As the University works to create and sustain supportive programming, Markus said that increased dialogue would have a positive impact on the greater Stanford community because it would increase awareness of the diverse Stanford culture.

“We often try to imagine that the good thing to do is to be color-blind, culture-blind, gender-blind and class-blind, but being blind won’t help us,” Markus said. “We have to think about differences and how the differences make a difference.”

 

  • james

    I am a first generation, low income student (now in grad school). I feel I am just as smart as anyone else and don’t need the pity of some diversity officer who thinks I am incapable of making decisions for myself.

    Some people act as though low income students at Stanford can’t use the Internet or find out anything without special assistance from some high-priced Stanford bureaucrat. I can choose classes and a major in the same manner as rich kids choose classes and majors.