On any given day, students crowd the second floor of Old Union, checking out textbooks, meeting alumni, eating food and spending time together. The students are from different class years, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, genders and parts of campus. They are brought together through a shared identity of being the first in their family to attend college and/or being low-income.
The Diversity and First-Gen (DGen) Office was created in April 2011 to support first-generation and low-income students in their transitions, empowerment and community-building. The work of the DGen Office was initiated by student activism that had earlier formed the First-Generation and/or Low-Income Partnership (FLIP); in particular, an honors thesis written by Siobhan Greatorex-Voith ‘08 on the experiences of low-income students in elite higher education spurred the installment of a preliminary staff position in Student Affairs that was cut after one year. Thanks to the championship of former Assistant Vice Provost of Educational Resources Sally Dickson, an anonymous donor and the momentum of student activism, the DGen Office was created with Tommy Lee Woon as its first director. Since then, with the strength of FLIP, the creation and expansion of the Leland Scholars Program (LSP) and new professional and student staff at DGen, our FLI community has grown larger and stronger each year. We are in solidarity with the other community centers in ensuring that Stanford is committed to diversity, equity and justice — not just in its promotional materials but also in institutional funds and support.
The DGen Office’s programs include the Opportunity Fund, an emergency fund for low-income students in times of need, as well as a graduate-undergraduate mentor program, a lending library of textbooks, financial literacy services, a growing alumni network, a number of community building and wellness events and other projects aiding departments, faculty and programs across campus in building equity for FLI students. The “Diversity” functions of the office are just as active, working to affirm intersectional identities and foster intergroup relationships. They include a variety of trainings for faculty and staff, FACES programs and the Intergroup Communication class.
Stanford is home to some of the most innovative programming among elite private universities for supporting FLI students, thanks to work by FLIP, DGen, LSP and increasing investment from other departments. It is also critical to note that the ethnic community centers have implicitly and explicitly supported FLI students since their inception and continue to do so today. However, Stanford is currently falling behind peer institutions such as Brown and the University of Pennsylvania, which have created large and dedicated campus spaces specifically for FLI students to ensure their sense of belonging, academic enrichment and personal development. With support from the University, we seek to resume our position as a national leader and innovator in the FLI movement.
The DGen Office has seen a fortunate proliferation in programming and student staff in the past few years. This cultivates a mistaken impression that the school has decided to significantly invest in the well being of FLI students; however, a large amount of the office’s budget comes from alumni donors and outside sources of funding. This means that staff spend valuable time securing funding for the office and their very positions — time that could be used supporting FLI students’ immediate needs.
The lack of University funding for the DGen Office speaks to a larger frustration with the University’s treatment of FLI students, especially in light of its ostensible pride in having more than 18 percent of the class of 2021 being first-generation and giving a generous amount of financial aid. FLI students are admitted to Stanford, but once we are here, the University fails to support us in a myriad of ways.
FLI students face barriers to academic success, to social inclusion, to a sense of belonging, to physical and mental health treatment, to professional development and to success after Stanford. While we juggle being full-time students, working multiple jobs, taking on service and leadership roles on campus, advocating for ourselves in protests and in classrooms and sending money back home to our families (or not having families to go back home to), we struggle. In response to crisis, FLI student activists and DGen professional staff have repeatedly stepped up to meet FLI student needs and build a stronger movement. The University administration frequently relies on our work to provide services that should be institutionalized by the University, as the FLI needs that DGen serves are oftentimes basic issues taken for granted by non-FLI students.
For example, it took the University three years to participate in solving food insecurity over spring break, and four years to commit to a fully acceptable solution (an open dining hall). In those four years, DGen, FLIP and ASSU spent intense time and money meeting the basic physical needs of students that were overlooked by the University. In this and many other cases, the DGen office has been able to meet crucial needs through the generosity of donors. Had donor outrage and support not been present, students would still be hungry. When students articulate that there is a need not being met, the University should act swiftly to fix the problem rather than let hundreds of students feel isolated and helpless.
The long-term vision of the DGen Office is to support a campus that cultivates equity, pride and belonging among FLI students and unity between FLI and non-FLI students. This begins with space large enough to accommodate our growing community, permanent funding for our professional staff and programming and expansion of the Opportunity Fund.
It is past time for the University to provide real investment, real support, real money for all vulnerable populations on campus. Our pride in our community and the structures we have created is constantly tempered by the knowledge that we are working in subtle opposition to the apathy of the University. If the University wishes to take genuine pride in its FLI students, it must stop taking for granted the years of work of student activists and administrators without substantial development. We need real funding.
Ian Macato ’19
John R. Oberholzer ’19
Arriana Jones ’19
Janzoille Sotero ’19
Kojoh Atta ’20
Stefanie Ky ’19
Sonia Velasco ’19
Daniella Caluza ’21
Contact the authors at communitycentercoalition ‘at’ gmail.com.