Recently elected First-Year Class Council President Sara Morales, BC ’21, and Vice President Tina Gao, BC ’21, who campaigned as first-generation, low-income students, are planning to prioritize the needs of students like themselves in their new roles on Barnard’s Student Government Association.
The number of incoming first-generation students decreased from 18.8 percent for the class of 2020 to 13.43 percent this year, though it fluctuates from year to year. In comparison, 17 percent of first-years at Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science identify as first-generation.
Morales said that both Columbia and Barnard need to improve the services they provide to first-generation students and how they communicate these services to students.
“[They] both brag about the fact that they’re very diverse colleges,” Morales said, “But I don’t see the legwork being put in by the administration to make [first-generation and low-income students] feel welcome.”
While Morales and Gao said they chose to attend Barnard because of its attention to marginalized students, they said the college could do more to raise awareness of the first generation, low-income identity and make sure that students are aware of on-campus resources.
“After my first week, I really wanted to go home,” Gao said. “It really made me consider why I even bothered applying for a private school, because I didn’t really feel like I belonged.”
But after meeting Morales and other first-generation, low-income students, Gao said she began to feel more comfortable.
“There’s a kinship there,” Morales said. “There’s a shared struggle.”
Both first-years said they decided to run for SGA in order to represent students like themselves. Morales said that while SGA includes student representatives from a variety of backgrounds, it could do more to improve its economic diversity.
Gao and Morales want to make sure low-income students are aware of the opportunities and resources available to them, such as the Columbia First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, a student support group that also offers a book lending library, and the Bear Essentials Fund, a Barnard program that provides books, bedding, and other essential college supplies to students in need.
While these resources exist, the lack of awareness perpetuates feelings of isolation for first-generation, low-income students, Morales and Gao said.
In addition to sharing available resources with students, the first-year council leaders also plan to address the cost of textbooks, which can influence which courses students take and what they choose to major in, Gao said.
Students may drop courses like calculus or economics after discovering the cost of required texts, which be over $300 per book, or be forced to select their professors based on the books they assign instead of the quality of their teaching.
Apart from the issue of textbook affordability, Morales said she wants to address the lack of diversity in Barnard’s First-Year Seminar and First-Year Writing curricula.
“I feel like it’s kind of sad that we have a repertoire of really talented women of color writers that have hailed from Barnard and other women’s colleges, and they’re not represented,” she said.
Their agenda doesn’t end with the classroom, but extends to extracurriculars as well. Because Gao works on weekends, she said it is hard to participate in clubs. After considering joining Columbia Mock Trial and the Columbia Debate Society, she realized that she would be unable to attend meetings and practices.
“This is a problem many [first-generation, low-income] students face, and [it] limits their ability to fully participate in campus life,” Gao said.
As representatives, Gao and Morales said they will be more aware of the financial constraints that prevent first-generation, low-income students from fully engaging in community events and will work to ensure that the first-year winter formal this semester is financially accessible.
Still, while Morales has been critical of Barnard, she said she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“You can tell someone’s love of something when they critique it,” Morales said. “It shows that they care enough—they don’t just give up on it.”
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