First generation, low income students struggle with visibility and support from university


Jada Howard and Caroline Kenney (pictured left to right) pose for a portrait. Both students spoke with The News their experiences at Northeastern as first-generation low-income students. Photo courtesy Jada Howard and Caroline Kenney.

Christina McCabe, news staff

In the days following Jada Howard’s acceptance to Northeastern University, she found herself locked in a fight with the school’s financial aid office. As a first-generation, low-income admit to the class of 2023, Howard and her mother went back and forth with the office, countering their aid offers with ones within their price range. In her last fleeting attempt to win the battle over financial aid, Howard threatened to attend Boston University, a Northeastern competitor, unless she was given a package that reflected BU’s near full-ride tuition grant. 

Howard never thought she would have to fight with Northeastern over something as simple as fulfilling a tuition gap for a low-income student. 

“We really had to start rubbing it in their face that they were going to lose a great student to BU,” Howard, now a graduating fourth-year international affairs major, said. “It wasn’t until then that we finally got some traction with the whole thing.”

Howard eventually received a financial package that reflected exactly what she had been asking for all along. Despite the difficult fight to start her college journey, Howard was ready to take on all Northeastern had to offer. Little did she know, the hardships did not end after the financial aid battle; they had just begun. 

At Northeastern, as well as other private universities throughout Boston, first-generation and low-income students are becoming a prominent demographic in the student population. In the past decade, colleges across Boston have started to establish clubs, organizations and centers for first-gen students. At Northeastern, the First-Generation Low-Income Student Union, the First-Gen Scholars and First-Gen Week are just some of the organizations and events that benefit first-gen students, all of which have been created in just the past few years. 

However, despite the resources available for this demographic, many students feel their college experience comes with hardship and differs from their ideal view of how college should be. Students find it hard to make friends, especially as many work multiple jobs, on top of being a full-time student, just to support themselves. And while resources for these students are available, spreading awareness about these opportunities is not something the university has prioritized, despite the growing number of first-gen students coming to campus. 

According to a 2018 study by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 46% of first-gen students attended a four-year private institution. With the acknowledgment the first-gen population is growing at schools like Northeastern, faculty who work closely with these individuals feel the university lacks the support students need. 

“A lot of our first-gen students are students with marginalized identities,” said Salter Scharstein, the assistant director at the Center for Intercultural Engagement. “Our first-gen, low-income students need tailored services that are going to be affirming to their identities and their lived experiences.”

Given Northeastern’s wealth— Northeastern accumulated a $213 million revenue surplus in 2021—, Scharstein felt the school should be offering more help to first-gen, low-income students, especially when less wealthy universities with smaller student bodies are able to provide them with basic needs, such as programs and centers for first-gen students. 

Howard agreed, saying that coming into a wealthy university was already hard enough, and Northeastern did not do much to help ease the transition. 

Upon her arrival to campus, Howard struggled to feel accepted. Coming from a small boarding school in Queens, New York to a Boston campus bustling with just over 21,000 undergraduate students was daunting for her, she said, especially since her demographic differed from the majority. According to a study from Opportunity Insights, a research organization based at Harvard University, 65% of the student body at Northeastern comes from households in the top 20% of wealth. Therefore, finding commonalities among peers proved to be difficult for Howard. 

Now, Howard has come to terms with the fact that she never had the “traditional college experience” – one that is supposed to be the best four years of someone’s life, like in the movies. Instead, she experienced four years of trying to find her place as a first-gen, low-income student on a campus where resources, while present, are not as helpful as expected. 

“I feel like I focus so much on making money in order to sustain myself and then focusing on school to make sure I don’t lose my grant,” Howard said. “There’s no Jada time, which is something that I feel like isn’t talked enough about; trying to figure out different ways to maintain my mental health.”

Even weeks before her graduation Howard found herself fighting with the Financial Aid Office. 

While talking to her mother on the phone, Howard found the email she received when she was first admitted to the university. All the way to the bottom, the aid letter said that upon completing her four years as an undergraduate, she would be able to partake in Northeastern’s Plus One program to obtain her master’s. The appeal, however, was that 50% of her undergraduate grant would carry over and be used as aid for the duration of the Plus One.

But during her last undergraduate semester, upon checking in with the financial aid office about the status of her aid for the following graduate semester, Howard found out that the guarantee of the half-price Plus One program was redacted. The university tried to tell her that she had never been promised such an offer, so Howard went digging through emails to ensure that the hard work she put in to set herself up perfectly for this program would not have been for nothing. 

Through three co-ops, countless hours employed at the Disability Resource Center for work-study, part-time side jobs and copious amounts of schoolwork, Howard says does not plan on giving up. She will be finishing her undergraduate journey the same way it started: at the Financial Aid Office. 

The term “first-generation” was coined in the 1980s when the Higher Education Act of 1965 was amended. A first-gen student, by most organizations’ definitions, is a student whose parents never completed a four-year degree program. Most students come from families with parents who never completed high school or parents who were just shy of obtaining their bachelor’s. 

Despite the fact that the term “first-gen” has been around for nearly four decades, the majority of students who identify as first-gen have not received support until now. While Northeastern does have first-gen programs, many say there is still a long way to go to make sure that every student feels that they are not only prepared for college, but also included. 

According to a report from the College Board, the number of first-gen applicants to U.S. universities rose 43% in the past three years, with nearly 134,000 applicants in 2019 to 192,000 in 2022. With more first-gen students applying to universities, resources are needed to ensure that these students are able to thrive in an environment their parents are also experiencing for the first time. 

The number of applicants that come from a low-income background also increased between 2019 and 2022. In 2019, 109,000 applicants who were eligible for an application fee waiver applied to universities compared to 168,000 applicants in 2022, a 54% increase. 

Nearly 20 years ago, Northeastern created the Torch Scholars program, the university’s first steps to welcome first-gen low-income students to campus and help them navigate college life. The Torch program started out as a 10-student initiative, and has turned into a program that supports 15 students from each yearly class. Jennifer Schoen, the director of the Torch Scholars, has been in the position for almost 10 years.

“Our goal is to help these students not just get good grades and succeed academically, but also to connect to all the opportunities on campus and to know how to use the scholarship,” Schoen said. “Stuff that they can’t ask their parents about because their family doesn’t have that experience.”

The process of becoming a Torch Scholar is demanding and requires a lot of time and effort from the applicants. To be considered for the program, students must identify as first-gen, and they must be eligible for a Pell-Grant, which is a federally-funded grant that supports students who demonstrate exceptional need for financial support. 

After students submit their applications, Schoen and her team look through every one and select the top 50 applicants from the pool of hundreds. From there, Schoen arranges interviews for all the potential scholars.

“We want students who are good listeners, who are good leaders,” Schoen said. “We look at teamwork a lot, and that’s some of the questions we ask of nominators. We look for leadership and really value that.”

After the interviews have been conducted, Schoen concludes the three-month process and awards 15 scholars with a scholarship that covers tuition, housing, a meal plan and any supplies that the student may need throughout their time at Northeastern.

“I selected 11 classes and this is going to be our 11th graduation that I’ve attended,” Schoen said. “It’s just cool to see the students right at the beginning and then to see them all the way through to graduation.”

While Torch Scholars is the university’s longest running program, other organizations have popped up around campus in the past few years. The Center for Intercultural Engagement, or CIE, and the Social Justice Research Center, or SJRC, are prominent operations that aid in student engagement and community efforts, but it wasn’t until the past couple of years that these two started to create a home for first-gen students as well.

In 2019, two undergraduate students, Kiera Perryman and Tyreke Gaston, started raising awareness about the first-gen population on campus and urged their peers to participate in National First-Gen Day, which occurs on Nov. 8 each year. Since then, first-gen day has grown into a full week of celebration and activities on the Northeastern campus, and the CIE collaborates with the First-Gen Undocumented Low-Income Network, or FUNL Network, and First-Gen Low-Income Student Union to provide the support and resources to make it all possible.

“Being first-gen is intersectional, so it hits on all of our culture and spiritual life centers,” said Naomi Boase, the director for the CIE and staff member with the FUNL Network. “So there’s a lot of educational opportunities during First-Gen Week to educate staff, faculty and students.”

In 2022, First-Gen Week experienced its biggest turnout yet, with Northeastern campuses across the U.S. participating in the festivities. Over 700 Northeastern patrons participated in supporting first-gen students throughout the entire Northeastern global network, according to CIE First-Gen Week turnout statistics. 

On top of the Torch Scholars program and the first-gen initiative put on by the CIE, other resources available to first-gen students include the Summer Bridge Scholars Program and the D’Amore-McKim School of Business and College of Arts, Media and Design’s F1RST Gen Scholars Programs. The Summer Bridge Program is open to first-gen, low-income, undocumented and minority students entering their first year at Northeastern. The program offers students a chance to explore all the resources Northeastern has to offer during a three-day trip to campus in the summer.

The DMSB/CAMD F1RST Gen Scholars programs are initiatives that were created to help first-gen students learn leadership skills, receive mentoring from alumni and learn to take hold of opportunities that come their way. The DSMB program was created in 2021, with CAMD following in creation just a year after. While these programs are both opportunities for first-gen students to receive individually tailored resources, both programs offer limited spots due to them both being funded by independent donors, not Northeastern. 

“I feel like the program still needs a lot of workshopping,” said Caroline Kenney, a first-year journalism major in the CAMD F1RST Gen Scholars program. “It felt like we were the guinea pigs for something that has the potential to be great.”

While all of these programs and resources are available once a student gets to campus, Northeastern’s Foundation Year program is a unique opportunity for first-gen students that live in the Boston area. Upon being admitted to Northeastern, the student is placed into a cohort with other first-gen low-income students in the area. The student spends their first year in a trial-like experience to see if the student would do well at the school. The program runs through the spring and fall semesters, as well as one of the summer semesters, and if a student completes the program, then they are admitted to the school with a scholarship. The catch, however, is that if a student does not maintain the GPA minimum, ranging from 3.0 to 3.5 depending on the semester, for a semester, they are not able to continue their education at Northeastern. 

However, with all of these programs and resources that are available, many students can’t help but feel that they are fighting harder than they should to find acceptance on campus.

Coming to campus after completing Foundation Year, Alexis Dami says she was lost. The second-year music industry and theatre major had no idea of where to go for resources, and she felt like an outsider. Working hard to get into Northeastern was something Dami had expected, but she hadn’t realized how unprepared she would be after Foundation Year.

“I always called it high school part two,” Dami said. “Because that’s exactly what it feels like.”

Dami said that while she’s glad the program gave her the opportunity to ease back into academics following the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt that it could have been advertised more, instead of her finding out about it after being placed into it.

Miriam Ismail, a second-year health science major, agrees. Ismail felt the program should have been more interactive, and should have allowed students to experience everything the campus has to offer. She wished the program provided more resources for the students, such as MBTA passes, which almost every student used to get to class every day. 

“I wish I actually knew what this program was before being accepted,” Ismail said. “I didn’t think it would be that isolating, either, but everyone I knew was only Foundation Year kids and professors since the only way to find other people was by putting myself out there and trying to join clubs.”

With all of the programs at Northeastern, first-gen low-income students feel that they are unaware of most resources the school has to offer. Some students didn’t know about certain programs until they arrived on campus, while others didn’t know until they were upperclassmen. Faculty at the CIE and SJRC organize all the first-gen programs they offer, but getting the word out is difficult when there is short-staffing and the university does not help with advertising for first-gen students.

“We need more outreach,” said Erick Yanzon, an associate director for the SJRC. “Like once the students get here, show them what resources they really have to survive and navigate the institution.” 

Even if students are aware of these programs, it does not always mean they can get involved. The DMSB/CAMD F1RST Gen Scholars programs are limited to students that reside in those colleges, and the Summer Bridge Program only just allowed students from all colleges to participate last summer. In the past, only select colleges were invited to participate. With a striking level of inaccessibility, even for resources the university offers, faculty and students feel there needs to be more awareness of the presence of first-gen low-income students as well as more readily available and tailored resources.

“People think of first-gen students as like, ‘Oh, they need help,’” Schoen said. “Yeah, that’s true, but once they get help, we just get out of the way because then it’s like ‘I’m going to take over this club’ and ‘I’m running this over here.’ It’s just recognizing all the strengths and talents and grit and resilience that they bring and just making it navigable at Northeastern.”

Romey Valme, a second-year criminal justice major, agrees that first-gen low-income students are resourceful, but thinks that does not mean that they should work harder than their peers. Valme is on work-study, which is an opportunity for students to work on campus, where the salary they make is then returned to their tuition. She says that despite the financial burden it relieves, it takes away from having time to herself or with friends. 

“I really wish that the school would find a way to prioritize and utilize extra funds that they have to give to people who truthfully need it,” Valme said. “Just so I could have the time to go talk to my professor or focus on my schoolwork.” 

Natalie Coreas, a second-year psychology and criminal justice combined major, feels the same when it comes to the first-gen experience. Like Valme, Coreas is a first-gen low-income student that has a work study, and she works extra hard to support herself while keeping her grades afloat. “I don’t go out on the weekends,” she said. “My only free time is when I sleep.”

Another change that many feel would be beneficial in the future is how the university accommodates first-gen, low-income students.

“What I would like to see change for first-gen low-income students at Northeastern is a dramatic institutional culture shift,” Scharstein said. “Historically at this university, people in power have shut down initiatives, whether they’re student-led or staff-led that support first-gen causes.”

In the future, many students and faculty all have one hope in common: a first-gen student center. Other colleges in Boston, such as Boston University, have begun creating spaces devoted solely to first-gen students, and many feel that Northeastern should be next. 

“We still don’t have a first-gen center, and that’s something a lot of our students have advocated for,” Yanzon said. “We don’t get paid to support first-gen stuff, we’re just passionate about doing that work.”

Boase, Yanzon, Scharstein and Kelliann Henry, the assistant director of undergraduate student engagement in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, all feel that a first-gen center is something that would give the first-gen community a home on campus. 

“There’s other institutions that have those centers available to students,” said Boase, who works closely with first-gen low-income students. “Our goal really is to help everyone, ourselves included, feel that we all belong here. I think just trying to make the case for why it’s important is how we’re going to succeed.”