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Lula O'Donnell / Columbia Daily Spectator

As I follow Barnard sophomore Sara Morales around Ferris Booth Commons, she chats in Spanish with the dining staff, calling them by name. She later tells me that she relates more to the hourly employees who serve her food, swipe her ID, and clean her dorm at Barnard than she relates to most of her fellow students.

Morales wears Warby Parker glasses, an outfit full of yellows and oranges, and a shoulder-length haircut. Energy flows out of her as she bounces around Ferris, calling me “legend” and “king.” We take our containers back to Hewitt, where Morales greets the front desk attendant. Stepping into her room on the third floor, I feel like I’m entering a home. Scented candles and plants line the window sills, prints and tapestries cover the walls, a fish bowl filled with candy sits prominently by the door, and the floor is entirely subsumed by a fluffy, comfortable rug. A Cuban flag is displayed proudly in the window for all in the Quad to see. She later tells me that she makes her room this cozy because she wants it to be a place where her fellow first-generation and/or low-income (FGLI) students can come, feel safe, and break down. This carpet, she says, has seen a lot of emotional breakdowns.

A myriad of interrelated challenges face FGLI students at Barnard, from the cost of laundry and textbooks to the need for academic mentorship. A town hall held during in the spring of 2018 concluded that there were enough resources to address many of these common problems; the real challenge was a lack of student awareness. The call for a dedicated advisor was answered just two weeks after the town hall when Jemima Gedeon assumed the role of associate dean of student success, making it her mission to bolster support services and create a community for FGLI students.

But, despite substantive advances in the resources and support offered by the administration over the past few years, some FGLI students at Barnard still feel largely left to fend for themselves. To some extent, this is exacerbated by enduring disparities in available resources offered to different segments of the FGLI population. But more than that, Morales was quick to tell me that material benefits alone will not be enough to bridge the social and cultural divides that FGLI students like herself experience at Barnard. What Morales demands is a dedication to cultivating the community and social capital that will allow FGLI students to thrive.

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In the past few decades, Barnard, like other elite colleges, has prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion in putting together its first-year classes. Its admissions office not only follows the principle of “holistic” consideration of candidates, but also aggressively recruits people of color (POC), “underrepresented minority” groups, and FGLI students. One way they do that is by bringing high school students from those groups to campus and selling the Barnard experience to them.

Sitting in the lobby of Diana and speaking loudly due to a tour group convening behind us, Kaoutar Afif, a sophomore FGLI student, says she hadn’t given Barnard much thought until her high school guidance counselor convinced her to attend Barnard Bound, a two-day overnight program hosted by the Admissions Office to provide “a taste of both Barnard College and New York City for promising young women who … self-identify as students of color.” As part of the program, Afif was hosted in the dorm room of an FGLI student. Afif says her experience at Barnard Bound convinced her to apply. “I got to meet so many POC and fellow FGLI students who were very open in talking about their experiences and the resources that Barnard had to offer,” she tells me.

Afif left Barnard Bound believing that the FGLI community was prominent, even preeminent on campus. Instead, what she found in her first year was that Barnard Bound was the most time she would ever see devoted to discussing the common problems experienced by FGLI students on campus.

Just 50 years ago, the notion of FGLI students being prominent on the campus of an elite college might have been unthinkable, but today it is a thoroughly reasonable expectation. While the national discourse on college affordability centers around the $1.5 trillion student loan crisis, a group of elite colleges including Barnard advertises need-blind admissions and a promise to meet all demonstrated need for admitted students. Over the past few decades, these schools have largely phased out all borrowing by low-income students, replacing loans with grants that do not need to be repaid. The promise of elite colleges today is that they can be affordable, and even free, for high-achieving, high-need students.

Last year at the University of Pennsylvania, 25 percent of first-years were FGLI. Both Brown University and Penn now have student centers for FGLI students, and starting next year, Columbia will have an FGLI Special Interest Community. All of this FGLI real estate signifies not just the growth of the FGLI population at elite colleges, but also an increased recognition that these students require a unique support system—that the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot be accomplished when they are left sequestered in the admissions office. While Barnard plays host to a similarly substantial FGLI population, it has farther to go in terms of recognizing what this community needs.

***

No doubt a testament to aggressive recruiting and affirmative action, Barnard has grown markedly more racially and ethnically diverse over the last decade and a half. The percentage of students self-identifying as white fell from 66 percent in the 2004-2005 academic year to 52 percent in 2017-2018. Meanwhile, “domestic students of color” rose from 32 percent to 39 percent, and “domestic underrepresented minorities” went from 13 percent to 20 percent. By some measures, however, socioeconomic diversity at Barnard has stagnated or even dropped.

In 2017, the New York Times reported that the median household income at Barnard was $190,100, with 65 percent of the student body hailing from families in the top 20 percent of income earners nationwide. Meanwhile, only 6.6 percent of first-year students came from the bottom 20 percent of income earners, and approximately 20 percent came from the bottom 60 percent of earners. The percentage of the first-year class receiving Pell Grant aid from the federal government has remained steady since the 2004-2005 academic year. Similarly, the percentage of the first-year class identifying as “first generation college” has been steady, peaking at 17 percent in 2013-2014 and reaching its lowest point in 2016-2017 with 11 percent.

Sofía Sánchez-Záraté

The challenge for Barnard is, and always has been, its tuition-dependence. Unlike many peer colleges, Barnard was founded with no endowment; to this day, its endowment remains miniscule in comparison to those of similar private colleges. In 2015, income generated by the endowment only covered 5 percent of the college’s $150 million budget; in contrast, Wellesley College covers around one-third of its budget with endowment income. Barnard was left to cover over 60 percent of its budget with tuition and fees in 2015. While the college has a “need-blind” admissions policy, in the 2017-2018 academic year, only 39 percent of students were receiving financial aid, compared to 58 percent at Wellesley.

In fact, Barnard today services a higher-income clientele than it did in the 20th century, according to Robert McCaughey, a Barnard professor who studies its history and the director of the Barnard Electronic Archive and Teaching Laboratory. This is because Barnard, much like Columbia, was always a school with a high number of commuters. According to McCaughey, until Sulzberger Hall was completed in 1988, around 40 percent of Barnard students commuted. Now, less than 10 percent do. Until the 1980s, low- and middle-income students with Pell Grants and scholarships such as the Regents Scholarship could very cheaply attend Barnard if they lived nearby. Over two-thirds of Barnard’s student body came from public high schools until about the 1970s, says McCaughey. Now, that number is around 50 percent. McCaughey’s analysis draw on data from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Barnard’s archival sources, and the demographic data that Barnard makes publicly available.

The commuter experience, according to McCaughey, “was in some ways a more atomistic arrangement because you came in on the train Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and you went home.” Without that commuter experience, Barnard faces a novel set of issues.

Unlike the FGLI students of the 20th century, Barnard’s current FGLI population hails from across the United States. FGLI students can find themselves overwhelmed by the unaccounted costs of textbooks, laundry, transportation, and winter clothing—stressors that pile atop the already significant academic and social stress associated with Barnard. As McCaughey points out, it is within the small residential and social environment of Barnard that social and cultural differences truly reveal themselves.

Sofia Sanchez-Zarate

As a population identifier, FGLI is a relatively fluid designation, particularly because it includes first-generation and/or low-income college students. While there is overlap between those two categories, students who fall in either category can call themselves FGLI. FGLI refers less to a concise set of traits and more to a set of circumstances and mutual experiences that span across social and economic categories.

Director of Financial Aid Nanette DiLauro said in a statement to The Eye that the college uses a combination of measures, including Pell Grant eligibility and a more holistic view of the parents’ ability to contribute to tuition, to determine low-income status; whether or not a student’s parents earned a 4-year college degree determines if the college categorizes them as first-generation. Despite those concrete measures, colleges today adopt the broadest possible view of who qualifies as FGLI. The website of Brown’s U-FLi Center says, for instance, “We welcome any student who self-identifies as having minimal prior exposure to or knowledge of experiences like those at Brown.”

On the surface, this fluidity of definition could make FGLI a nebulous identifier. Yet, while it may not fit easily into the racial or class categories that colleges use as demographic measures, FGLI has been the subject of many op-eds, dissertations, and books in the past few years. FGLI refers to a very tangible, enduring set of economic, social, and cultural challenges at Barnard—some of which are not being adequately addressed. Over the past two years, those challenges have inspired town halls, SGA meetings, and Spectator op-eds.

In response to that increased attention, administrators and student leaders have begun to take note and put forth solutions. A recent response is the creation of the FGLI Student Advisory Board. Last year, Barnard’s Student Government Association created an ad hoc committee to investigate food insecurity. This year, the opening of the Milstein Center came with a textbook lending program solely for FGLI students. SGA attempted to secure subsidized laundry cards for low-income students last year, and while the plan failed due to Barnard Residential Life and Housing’s adoption of a new payment system for the laundry machines, another attempt by SGA is in the works, according to SGA Vice President Tina Gao.

Lula O'Donnell

Some of the problems faced by FGLI students, however, seem more intractable, such as the job and loan expectations for financial aid recipients. While high-endowment schools (including Columbia) have abolished all expectations of borrowing, Barnard has not done so even for its highest-need attendees.

Even a low-income student with a “full ride” gets saddled every semester with a “self-help” fee. This sum is expected to be paid off with a combination of summer income, income from jobs during the semester, and subsidized loans. In 2017-2018, the average self-help for students receiving grant aid from Barnard was $6,196 per year.

Jasmin Torres, an FGLI sophomore, recently took on a third job in order to meet her self-help and Federal Work Study expectations without having to take out an emergency loan. She told me that self-help is a source of constant anxiety for her, and also makes her feel like she never left home where, as the only daughter in a traditionalist Guatemalan household, she was expected to do a lot of the housework. On top of that, she told me some of her friends need to to send portions of their income home to support their parents.

For Morales, the constant grind contributes to a sense of bitterness and betrayal—a feeling that she is being cheated out of a real college experience.

Torres speaks about the work and loan requirements as issues of myth versus reality. She is resentful precisely because she sees her wealthy peers having the sort of college experience she imagined she would have when she went to college in New York City—concerts, parties, dinners out, networking. Over the summer, they take unpaid or underpaid internships in order to “explore” themselves and different career paths. They are partying, not babysitting, on Saturday nights. That fantasy college experience, she realized, would never materialize. For all students on financial aid, self-help debts continue to increase every year.

Lula O'Donnell

There are also significant disparities within resources offered to Barnard’s FGLI students—specifically, the difference between Opportunity Programs (OP) scholars and non-OP students. Opportunity Programs scholars are students who receive additional support through programs such as the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and the much smaller Barnard Opportunity Program (BOP). HEOP is a New York State-funded program which has operated for 50 years and is designed to allow low-income New York State residents to attend four-year liberal arts colleges. BOP is a much newer program, set up and funded by Barnard in order to offer similar resources to students from outside of New York. While BOP currently only serves a handful of students per class (the college declined to release statistics on this breakdown), Barnard’s Office of Development is currently working to expand its reach.

The resources offered to HEOP and BOP students through the OP office include mentorship, use of laptops, a small textbook library, and a staff of dedicated advisors. The OP office also has a lounge where students like Torres, a BOP scholar, often go to kick back and regroup. Despite the resources she receives as a BOP scholar, Torres still struggles with her self-help expectations, her groceries, and the books she can’t get a hold of. While many other students share these struggles, not all have access to the social network, sense of place, and dedicated attention that Torres describes as the most salient resources the OP office provides for her.

The first weeks, months, and even year at Barnard can be a particularly difficult time for some FGLI students, for whom living at an elite college in New York City could not be more different from their home environments. Economic segregation in America’s schools is at its highest point in five decades, meaning that children whose parents didn’t go to college are very likely to attend schools at which most of their peers come from the same background.

Afif tells me that because of her minimal experience in academia, she was too intimidated to raise her hand in class, attend office hours, or even approach her professors about issues such as textbook affordability during her first year. “So I just kind of half-assed a lot of my classes, just trying to figure out what to do without buying any books,” she says.

HEOP and BOP scholars like Torres report to Barnard the summer before their first year for a mandatory summer “bridge” program, a college prep boot camp in which they get Barnard’s sparsely populated campus virtually to themselves. Torres entered the first weeks of college having already made friends and having literally taken classes about the resources available to her. On the other end of the spectrum, Afif wasn’t admitted as part of a scholar program and arrived at Barnard with no connections. For her, the first year of college brought a sense of isolation.

Beyond the obvious differences in access to resources between OP students and non-OP students, the lack of communication about universally accessible resources is something that came up again and again in conversations with FGLI students.

Some students may not know that the population of low-income students is must larger than the OP population at Barnard, something DiLauro mentioned in her statement to The Eye. Until recently, Aisha Saleem, a first-year student from New York City who isn’t in an OP, didn’t understand the distinction between HEOP and FGLI, confused by why some FGLI students had arrived at Barnard two months before her and seemed to have more of a hang of things, as well as more material resources.

It took Afif two semesters at Barnard to find out about the Bear Essentials fund—a pool of money dedicated to helping low-income students at Barnard with essentials such as winter clothes, books, warm bedding, and school supplies.

Information about Bear Essentials and how to access it is non-existent in the digital realm, so students often only hear about it through word-of-mouth, thus privileging students who arrive on campus with FGLI networks already in place.

While Bear Essentials was created to help low-income first-years cover start-up costs, DiLauro said that her office uses the fund for students from other class years in situations they determine to be emergencies. Two upperclassmen FGLI students I spoke to mentioned getting help from the Financial Aid Office following emergencies such as broken laptops. However, because this form of financial help is explicitly communicated as only available to first-years, these students only heard about it from friends.

This limited scope derives from necessity. The Bear Essentials fund would be stretched too thin if offered to all students, though DiLauro notes that one of her office’s goals is to create a fund that covers all students in need.

“It’s very exhausting for FGLI students to have to constantly advocate and ask and beg and email and be annoying about [accessing resources].” Morales says. “I am privileged that I didn’t find it very hard to do. … I’m a very ‘out there’ person. But not every FGLI student is.”

The Student Success program, housed in the Office of the Dean of Studies and run by Associate Dean of Studies for Student Success Jemima Gedeon, has in recent years organized numerous resources designed to provide holistic social, cultural, and academic support. One of Gedeon’s first moves was to create a FGLI Student Advisory Board, composed of seven students. While still in its infancy, the board, she says in an interview with The Eye, is already proving a vital link between the FGLI population and the administration. The board of trustees hosted the FGLI Student Advisory Board at its last meeting, a vital exposure that will hopefully lead to more of the community’s needs being addressed.

Communication gaps are an issue Gedeon is acutely aware of, and according to Afif, who serves on the FGLI Student Advisory Board, Gedeon frequently blasts her large listserv to advertise resources and programming such as the Peer Academic Leaders (PALs), FGLI dinners, and the National First-Generation Awareness Day in November.

In addition, the members of the FGLI Student Advisory Board recently created a Facebook group for Barnard’s FGLI population, which already has a membership of 140, according to Gedeon. The Facebook group, she believes, will bring to light the concerns of the Barnard FGLI population at large, as well as create greater awareness of available resources.

Gedeon, herself an FGLI student who attended New York University, says that what’s great about Barnard is how much of a voice students have. “I find that the community and the culture here is that students have a voice and administrators are listening,” she says.

Gedeon’s mission is to create a network of social capital and material resources that provides for non-OP students what the OP office provides for OP scholars. But, as she points out, “The Student Success Program is an entity that I'm co-creating with students. I'm not coming up with programs on my own.”

Lula O'Donnell

Morales pointed out to me that she—a child of Cuban immigrants—might be sitting next to the child of a billionaire. The culture shock can be intense at times. Morales never thought of herself as FGLI prior to coming to Barnard. As she puts it, “I never thought of myself as poor. I never thought of myself as different because I had the privilege of being in a majority minority space.” For Torres, just meeting people who get allowances from their parents was enough to convince her that she had stepped into a new world.

Being FGLI at Barnard can feel profoundly isolating, not just because of the sense of contrast with other students, but also because of the newfound contrast with their families—having, as Morales put it, “a privilege that you’re not accustomed to.” Being the first to leave home can have an immense weight attached to it, which only adds to the strange feeling of distance felt when studying subjects that one’s parents can’t pronounce.

Torres mainly socializes with other FGLI students, not out of spite but because she just feels more comfortable around them. “If I ever have insecurities, I feel like they understand,” she says.

No FGLI student doubts that there are administrators, like Gedeon, DiLauro, and Associate Dean of Beyond Barnard A-J Aronstein, who have their interests and challenges in mind. So, why do Barnard FGLI students still feel unsupported and unrecognized?

As generous as the economic and academic support systems are, there is no material panacea for the sense of invisibility and non-belonging. Most of the specific difficulties raised by FGLI students—from working jobs outside of school, to feeling out of one’s element, to apprehension about speaking to professors—are probably shared by many non-FGLI students at Barnard. But it is the compounding of difficulties, coupled with the feeling of being uninvited and unaccounted for, that can make Barnard’s promises of diversity, equity, and inclusion ring hollow.

Torres came to Barnard for what she perceived as the combination of a big university in a big city, and a small residential women’s college which promises community and strong support systems. But as soon as she got here, she found herself reckoning with how different Barnard is from where she came from and the feeling that it is just not meant for her.

“They’ve never had to think about making this institution a good place for people who are first-generation low-income,” Morales says. “Because this institution was not made for people who are first-generation low-income.”

Some students have raised the need for Barnard to have its own version of Columbia’s First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP), which allows Barnard students to serve on its board, but primarily focuses on creating community among Columbia’s FGLI students. According to Afif, that is exactly what Gedeon has in mind with the FGLI Student Advisory Board.

Morales also speaks to the need for an FGLI space on campus. “FGLI students should have a space to decompress,” she told me. It won’t solve nearly all the problems of the FGLI community, she says, but at least it will send a message to prospective students and insecure first-years alike that FGLI students have a place here.

Saleem leaned heavily on Gedeon and her office last semester, but the issue is that it isn’t really a social space, somewhere where she can stop by and decompress. “It's in the dean's office on a floor in Milbank, so you can't necessarily go there. You have to schedule an appointment.”

In an interview with The Eye, Dean of Studies Natalie Friedman says that providing dedicated safe spaces for groups such as FGLI students is a major priority for President Sian Beilock and Chief Operating Officer Robert Goldberg. A space-planning firm is currently in the processing of studying the available space at Barnard in order to propose possible solutions. It won’t happen overnight, she says, but it’s in the realm of possibility.

No administrator or resource can break down the social and cultural barriers which can prevent FGLI students from feeling included in the social narrative of Barnard; that job predominantly lies with the rest of the Barnard student body. However, it is the job of an administration that actively recruits FGLI students to give them a place once they find their way through Barnard’s gate.

Until then, spaces like the OP office, Gedeon’s office, and of course Morales’ room—with its bed, carpet, and two stools—will have to do.

Editor’s note: Sara Morales is a new training staffer in The Eye at Spectator, but was not a member of Spectator at the time of reporting.

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