First-gen low-income Northeastern students experience unseen struggles


Jessica Xing

Donte Lewis, Clara Barsoum and Cynthia Barrera (pictured left to right) pose for a portrait. They spoke with The News about the challenges they face as first-generation low-income students attending Northeastern, such as balancing their part-time jobs with classes.

Rachel Umansky-Castro, news staff

Cynthia Barrera, a second-year criminal justice and political science combined major, has a packed schedule for a Northeastern University student: she’s balancing four classes while working 10-15 hours a week as a peer mentor, a teaching assistant and a receptionist at an office on campus.

“There comes a struggle with learning how to balance my work life and my school life. And a lot of professors aren’t always the most understanding when it comes to you having to balance life outside of Northeastern that isn’t solely just student life,” Barrera said.

Barrera is a first-generation, low-income student who needs to contribute to her tuition bills to attend Northeastern.

“We’re trying to earn money and live on our own,” she said.

Northeastern provides support to members of the first-generation low-income community, or FGLI, by offering scholarships and grants, and working with organizations such as the Summer Bridge Scholars Program that can help with the transition. However, many in this community say these resources are limited and not enough to help students overcome the burdens they face specific to them, often including significant responsibilities at home and the need to work. This is particularly true for students in Boston, now ranked the second-most expensive city to live in the U.S.

“Prices are going up due to the high inflation in the world,” said Peter Simon, an economics professor at Northeastern, who has been teaching for 15 years. “The university would then have to pay higher electricity, housing et cetera, which affects the tuition costs. And low-income families always, no matter what happens to the economy, have a greater effect on their community.”

Barrera is a part of the community that understands the struggles of handling financial issues without any support from others — and she is not alone. 

“The cost of living in Boston is so extreme. It would be nice to be able to like move off campus and have an apartment, but I just found out about how much that would actually cost and it’s just things that you may not take into consideration before going to college,” said Clara Barsoum, a fellow first-generation low-income student and a political science and communication studies combined major with a double major in philosophy. 

Barsoum moved to the U.S. from Egypt when she was 3 years old. Since moving to America, her father has been working in the automotive industry and her mother did as well until she had Barsoum’s younger brother seven years ago.

“Scholarship and financial aid [are] helpful, but I also have to constantly have a job to be able to support my needs,” Barsoum said. 

This common hardship of being a working student means missing out on typical student life at a university. 

“Due to one of my jobs, I was unable to participate in a lot of the clubs I was really interested in. I’m missing out on those opportunities,” Barrera said. “Without my job, I wouldn’t be able to pay for food, textbooks and everything else that I need that Northeastern wasn’t able to help me with.” 

Barrera also had to figure out how to properly fill out the FAFSA by herself. It may seem like a lot for a 19-year-old student to have to learn how to afford tuition without any help, but it became a norm for Barrera and Barsoum.

 “Even when it comes down to the little things for me like paying my own tuition, people are absolutely shocked that is something I actually have to deal with. And I never thought that was odd beforehand,” Barsoum said.

Many people within the FGLI community can relate to this setback of not having the ability to simply call up someone in their family who is well-versed and knowledgeable in the academic field. 

In response to this recurring and prevalent issue, the Massachusetts Office of Student Financial Assistance, or OSFA, promotes success in higher education through financial aid resources and services for students who may not have the economic or social opportunity to do so on their own. OSFA also has a program called GEAR UP, a federally-funded initiative that facilitates the needs of first-generation, low-income high school students who require guidance on the application process, forms, bills and any other necessary documents. 

“Our staff is really there to help answer those questions that they may not be able to get. Even with something as technical as a FAFSA, it can be overwhelming to hear about taxes or students whose parents’ first language may not be English,” said Krista Callinan, GEAR UP scholarship & school initiatives coordinator. “We try to break down the barriers and expose [students] to things that may be second nature for some folks but for students who have never been on a college campus or heard from their family members, they may not know as much.”

Although GEAR UP only supports students from seventh grade until their first-year of college, Northeastern has supportive organizations, such as the First-Generation Low-Income Student Union, which can support students with a community once they transition to the university and throughout their college experience. 

“I wanted to give other freshmen the same community that I once felt coming here,” said Donte Lewis, a first-year cell and molecular biology combined major at Northeastern and the first-year representative of the union. Fortunately enough, I am a Torch scholar, so that means I came in with a cohort of friends and people that are like-minded. I want to take that embrace and give it to people that didn’t have that same support.” 

Lewis connects with the community the FGLI Student Union represents because he is the first in his family to pass high school and attend college. “This adds to the pressure of being the first one to create new experiences and opportunities for my family that did not have the same opportunity as me,” said Lewis. 

However, other FGLI students feel that these resources are not as promoted or as available as often as they should be on campus. This leaves students figuring out financial and academic information by themselves or from word-of-mouth rather than hearing it from the university directly. 

“The resources at Northeastern are not widespread,” Barsoum said. “It took until my second year to know we had a First-Gen Low-Income Student Union. I feel like that is something I should have known beforehand.”

Motivated by her experiences as a FGLI student, Barsoum is now trying to provide resources for students like herself.

 One thing that I’m trying to do is create a first-gen and low-income resource toolkit, so then students within the Boston area are able to find those resources to help them with economic or academic needs,” Barsoum said.

While Northeastern’s FGLI students criticize its support system, Northeastern’s faculty believes it is substantial and will only develop further. 

“We count on the advisors to really guide the students and tell them everything that’s available,” said Mary Mello, the assistant dean for undergraduate academic affairs at Northeastern University. 

At the same time, Laura Green, the associate dean of teaching, learning, and experiential education and professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, recognizes the limitations of the university’s resources. 

“Students who might not already know that [resources] exist from previous experience might not feel comfortable advocating for themselves,” Green said. 

Green thinks the main issue is the university’s lack of promoting its support for these students. 

“Having the resources is as much of a challenge as actually connecting students with resources, [such as] the Student Support Initiative,” Green said.

The Student Support Initiative, or SSI, was created by Northeastern to provide all students with general information and resources for academic success.

“I feel like there really needs to be an extension of resources, and also making them more accessible and just easy to find, so that everybody is on the same playing field,” Barsoum said.