FGLI Freshmen Want Transformation, Not Isolation

Harvard’s acceptance letter was so long, it took me 10 minutes to translate. Interrupted by my father’s foot-tapping and my mother cursing Google Translate, I sputtered my Spanish interpretation on the beige couch. The basement was quiet after that, our disbelief nursed by the walls’ creaks and the furnace’s hum. Even the house couldn’t believe the transformative college experience that awaited me.

My acceptance meant a lot more than gaining entrance to a wannabe Hogwarts dining hall. College as a concept was a gateway to what my father deemed “la vida educada”: a steady stream of paychecks, a house with a dishwasher, a chance to finally ease off Medicaid. In the time of coronavirus, these feel like the finer things in life, particularly for first-generation, low-income students, who contrast what they have now versus what they hope they will have one day. We know that college is about the people — the besties that won’t just mail you Christmas cards after you graduate, but will put in a good word with their bosses. 

Harvard knows it has the connections students need to climb the career ladder, and even better, Harvard knows the Class of 2024 is starved for a crumb of normalcy. Oh, to exercise without a mask or to fall, laughing, into a friend’s arms without worrying about a deadly disease. Instead, Harvard’s fall plans cite laundry rooms as the only common space. With online classes, no visitors in our dorms and restrictions on what residential housing spaces we can enter, the first-year experience is projected to be an extension of our senior year spring, only harder. 

Harvard is taking advantage of our desire for the freshman experience we imagined as we applied to college, arbitrarily sacrificing our first year to scour for room and board fees like a kid flipping couch cushions for loose change. Harvard’s restrictions don’t just make incoming freshmen bitter; they also pin FGLI pre-frosh in a corner, forcing them to choose between their lives and their livelihoods. 

Harvard’s decision for the fall makes forming connections substantially harder for FGLI students. Friendships at Harvard do a lot more for a person than skipping the line at a party. Being friends with an up-and-coming movie executive helped Alina McKenna, writer of “Devil Wears Prada,” land her first agent. Composer Justin Hurwitz and screenwriter-director Damien Chazelle were blockmates, and they went on to win Oscars for “La La Land.

Even if FGLI students don’t want to break into the entertainment industry, college degrees have been proven to increase earnings for poor students. According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 90% of poor students with college degrees move up one rung of the socio-economic ladder and 53% of college graduates’ incomes end up belonging to the top three-fifths of the income scale. These numbers could be thanks to the intangible worth of critical thinking, speed reading or reverberating global recognition — or perhaps the value of networking. 

At Harvard, freshman year connections are vital to a student’s overall college experience. Your blockmates, your concentration, your extracurricular interests and more are defined at the end of your first year. Not only is freshman year the time to discover yourself, it’s also the year to explore your surroundings. Locating classrooms, museums and mental health facilities; finding math geniuses for homework help or a wise adult to explain the purpose of cover letters won’t be easy for the Class of 2024 once the pandemic recedes. Instead, we’ll play catch-up with the Class of 2025, panic-sweating through the Yard on the first day of school together. 

It seems as though the ones most concerned with this impending scenario are student organizations. Most organizations, from Latinas Unidas to Model Security Council, are connecting freshmen with upperclassmen through one-on-one virtual mentorship programs. While winning at online trivia won’t come close to celebrating with your team, it is a move in the right direction that Harvard administrators should promote and take one step further. 

The oncoming school year does not have to be chokingly lonely. The University of California at  Berkeley, for one, is assigning students to social pods. While in-person interaction always assumes some risk, so does coming on campus. If Harvard is going to invite freshmen to the dorms, it should attempt to facilitate some version of interpersonal connection. There must be alternatives to the isolation proposed by Harvard giving away to the inevitable rebellious, reckless get-together. Without an institutional effort to incorporate freshmen into the Harvard community, we risk leaving an entire class to flounder through the next few years. 

Though I never thought I’d float through college, I didn’t think I’d struggle to keep my head above water. Pandemic or not, I already feel pressure to squeeze everything I can out of the Harvard experience. Like many other FGLI pre-frosh, I don’t come from Harvard feeder schools. I don’t have family members who have graduated from Harvard or any other American college. The only person I know is Scott — a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and my uncle’s roommate. When I tried to explain to him what my first year of college would look like, he cringed. The key takeaway of college is the people you meet, he told me.

After stuttering through Harvard’s COVID-19 related restrictions, I retreated to the kitchen, leaned against the silent stove and cried. Then my father entered to make some tea. Earlier, when Harvard had announced they would allow freshmen on campus, he’d rocked back and forth in his seat with joy, and bounced his leg with the excitement of a puppy’s wagging tail. For him, it was like I had gotten into Harvard all over again. But for me, it was like the next year had crumbled in front of me.

When my father caught me sniffling in the kitchen, we just stared at each other. The silence of another generation’s misunderstanding stretched between us. From across that space I saw what he saw for me: a two-story house with a shiny fridge and a Mercedes in the driveway. In that moment, I hoped my pessimism was just teenage angst magnified. I hoped the college brochures weren’t liars. I hoped I’d graduate transformed with more than just a few friends show for it. In the quiet, I hoped my father was right. 

Image Credit: Flickr // Creative Commons

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