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Is it true that low-income first generation students find it hard to succeed in and adapt to an Ivy League school?

Updated New Haven, Connecticut

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Cindy’s Answer

Updated San Francisco, California

Hello there -


I'll try to do my best job to answer your question! Just for some background, I matriculated in the University of Pennsylvania after graduating from a big public school located in the suburbs of East Los Angeles as part of the graduating class where only about 25% of advanced to a 4-year university. I was not only just a handful of the graduating students from my school attending university located out-of-state but also one of the first ones to attend Penn in more than a decade. Additionally, my entire family immigrated to United States (US) from South Korea when I was 8 years old, so I was the first one to attend college in US among my family who at the time was making a living running a coin laundry business.


So as a low-income, first generation student attending Penn, I will say that there definitely were challenges beyond one's usual freshman adjusting to college and want to outline them here in hopes that you and others in a similar shoes may benefit.


1) As a first generation student, I was not used to seeking help. 

As the only one who's able to speak English in the family and the first one to attend college, I did not grow up having ample resources and definitely not used to seeking out individuals to whom I can rely on for help. Hence, I feel that especially in the beginning of my college career, I was not good at all about seeking out and utilizing all the resources that were now available to me by virtue of me being at this prolific educational institution including but not limited to numerous counselors, career advisors/networks, mentoring programs, financial resources, etc.


2) I was under the false impression that my background was too unique for others to relate to. 

What was immediately obvious the moment I stepped onto this premier Ivy League institution was that many have come from a much more affluent and some even from a very prominent families and secondary schools. Everything from parents who not only speak fluent English but some even having attended Penn or other prestigious universities themselves made me feel that as proud as I was for my accomplishment as the first one to attend a college in US, harboring on my struggles and challenges stemming from my background would segregate from others at Penn. However little did I know at the time, Penn is a huge place with over 2,000 undergraduate students matriculating every year along with thousands more of graduate students, faculty and other staff members. And with a place that large would consist of individuals from a very diverse background. While I had faced difficulties relating to others at my middle and high school as someone who was born and raised in an entirely different culture, at Penn, I encountered and befriended countless international students and third-culture kids and many who were just like me often dubbed culturally as a "1.5 generation". Moreover, Penn and other large universities would often sponsor specific programs for those from low-income families and therefore host many platforms for those with similar backgrounds to meet and connect.


3) I did not take enough time to explore academic and career interests. 

When starting off college, just like many others from immigrant and often low income families, I limited my post-college career options that were far from my academic such as pursuing medical/dental/law schools. I grew up with a very rigid definition of career success and with very limited exposure to successful professions and therefore, especially at the onset of college, I did not let myself have the liberty to take advantage of the wide spectrum of academic options available to you at a huge research institution such as Penn.


These 3 bullet points above were some of the things I experienced and learned from as someone in the shoe of a low-income, first generation student getting the privilege to attend an Ivy League institution. I hope that my experience can serve as another perspective and data point that you and others can apply when considering your future :)

Cindy recommends the following next steps:

  • Know that coming from a low-income family and being a first-generation student is something to be very proud of and something that can be of great benefit in your life going forward!
  • Explore your academic interest to the fullest before pigeonholing yourself to a specific profession especially those that are widely recognized and popular.
  • Do not ever feel that you and your upbringing is unique. Chances are that at a large-scale research institution like those in Ivy League will consist of individuals from a very diverse backgrounds.
  • Take advantage of all the resources available to you at the premier educational institution.
Updated
Such an insightful and thorough answer, Cindy! Thanks so much for sharing!
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