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To FLI or not to FLI?

By

Many people vividly remember where they were on Nov. 8, 2016. As seniors in a very liberal New York City high school, most of my friends had their eyes glued to the television or some livestream. Most probably remember the initial hope of seeing Hillary Clinton become president and remember that hope slowly being pulled away as the night dragged on. 

I like to joke about my experience on election night: I was sitting at home with my mom, watching CNN. She went to bed at about 10 p.m., when The New York Times projected that Clinton had a 99% chance of winning the presidency.  I had to wake her up for work the next morning, and break the unfortunate news to her. But I soon found out she had received even worse news on Election Day, before the first ballot was counted. She had received a piece of paper no American worker wants to receive: the infamous pink slip.

I don’t tell many people that my mother, the only other person in my immediate family, lost her job on the day of the 2016 election. I normally just describe the oh crap reaction she had when I woke her up the next day. I tell even fewer people that she also hasn’t found a stable job in the past three years. I only ever talk about my financial situation when I absolutely have to, and even then it leads to some pretty awkward moments. When I tell people I can’t book a flight back home, their response normally assumes that the six-hour flight to New York is the barrier, not the cost of the actual ticket.

One of these moments came last summer, which I spent studying abroad in Santiago, Chile — something I would have never been able to do were it not for the financial aid I received through the Bing Overseas Study Program. A member of my cohort asked me point blank, “Are you FLI?” That question had never been posed to me before; I answered by saying, “Yes and no,” followed with a bit of explanation.

When I applied to college I was first-generation but not low-income. When I first started Stanford I was “technically” not first-generation but definitely low-income. To fully understand what all this means, you need the full story.

I grew up middle class. We had our basic necessities covered — we never ran out of food and the power was always on— but luxuries like vacations, designer clothing and a car were out of the question. Middle class, as we learned, meant that it took just one meeting with human resources to lose your means of income and healthcare, and jeopardize your dream of being able to afford college. 

While Stanford has been very generous to me with financial aid, I obviously didn’t know that I was going to study here when my mom broke the news of her layoff to me. In fact, I hadn’t even made the decision to apply. When filling out financial aid applications, I realized that the timing of the layoff made the situation worse. Both the FAFSA and the CSS profile look at income from previous years, and for me that income bore little relevance to our situation when I applied to college. While there is space to explain any “extenuating circumstances” on these applications and to any financial aid offices, not every school was willing to listen to a student whose family seemed financially fine on paper in 2015. This was especially true for schools that weren’t need-blind and responded to our questions with non-answers that did little to reassure my parents and me that we would be able to afford going to that school. Luckily, Stanford was not one of those schools. Thanks to Stanford’s financial aid (and the help of an outside scholarship), I’m able to work to support my mom, rather than myself, as she continues the search for a stable job.

The opportunity to study here meant the world to both of us. My mother hadn’t finished her own studies; she dropped out of college in order to support her family, which didn’t matter much while I was growing up and she had a consistent paycheck. However, the story is totally different when looking for work. Students at Stanford know how difficult it is to find a job without a college degree, and that holds true regardless of the generation of the applicant. But this is where getting into college afforded some privilege to our family. When my mom was laid off, she took the risk of going back to school to finish the last few credits required to complete a degree.

This is why I add “technically” to my status as not a first-generation college student. While my mom has completed the requirements for a degree, it has yet to manifest itself in the benefits associated with being a college graduate. The first of these is a well-paying, stable job, which is still eluding her. Another benefit of having a parent who’s a college graduate is the advice they have to give once you arrive on campus. Maybe your parents had a traditional college experience — maybe they even had it here on the Farm — and they can help guide you through all the complicated aspects of college life, like applying to clubs, rushing, asking a professor to be your major advisor or being in a relationship. This isn’t a benefit of which I can take advantage.

My mom might have helped with the college application process, because she was once in that position, but when it comes to navigating my experience here I’m on my own. I’m grateful I didn’t have to figure out the entire application process on my own as some FLI students have to do (especially if they come from families whose first language isn’t English). Nevertheless figuring out the I-got-into-college-now-what-do-I-do experience hasn’t been a cakewalk either. Obviously there are some things that take precedence over everything else: maintaining my GPA in order to keep my scholarship and making sure I can secure a source of income each quarter to send home. But beyond that, I struggle with figuring out what to do with my time here. I’m thankful that I only have to work one job to support my family, but I’m frequently left wondering if I should be doing more to help secure the financial future for both my mom and myself.

This isn’t an attempt to elicit pity from readers about my situation; I’ve already described some of the structural advantages I’ve enjoyed. The reason I’m writing this is twofold. The first purpose is personal: to order my thoughts on a topic I’ve very hesitant to speak about, but nevertheless vital to how I experience Stanford. The second is to hopefully to get some answers to where I belong in relation to the FLI community on campus. While I’m only recently starting to look for these answers, the questions have been on my mind since I started as a frosh.

When I first got here, I was placed on the [firstgen2021] mailing list — I certainly don’t remember subscribing to it on my own. After a few weeks, I decided to filter it into a folder in my inbox and never check it. I didn’t want to take up resources that weren’t meant for me. While they are far from the majority on this campus, there are still students who have faced a lot worse than I have and they deserve the opportunity to have a mentor, or get help applying for a job or scholarship much more than I do. 

While there’s no doubt that these students deserve these resources, I still question whether or not I deserve them. For most my time at Stanford, my answer to that question has been no. Better to be safe and figure out all of this on my own, than to be sorry and take up resources I shouldn’t. However, as I start the second half of my undergraduate career at Stanford, I’ve been examining aspects of my life that I might be approaching the wrong way. I don’t think I would be making the best of my time here if I weren’t using resources while I had access to them.

Am I gatekeeping myself or am I just complaining about struggles that pale in comparison to students that face more adversity than me? How do we decide more broadly what it means to be a first-generation, low-income student at Stanford? Using a resource-based approach to deciding whether or not I belong to this community is inconclusive. If we look at my experiences growing up, then I’m not FLI at all. Can a person be FLI at Stanford without being raised in a low-income family, or are those experiences central to the identity of a FLI student? The same can be said about the experiences of hostility from the University — for example, employers limiting the amount of hours I can work, or professors not being understanding in the event of a family emergency. I can’t describe these experiences because I have yet to confront them. In the same vein, I don’t have experiences coming from a community that has been marginalized or neglected by society. I should have started asking these questions earlier, but I would prefer to hear the input of others late, than to keep asking myself these questions, during the next election night.

Contact Michael Espinosa at mesp2021 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Michael Espinosa '21 is majoring in international relations. He's the head of The Daily's social media team and also writes for the University beat. He's the biggest Taylor Swift fan at Stanford and the proudest New Yorker will ever meet. Contact him at mesp2021 'at' stanford.edu.