February 27, 2019

University Hosts Two Conferences On First-Gen, Low-Income Students

“FLI IS FLY”: First-generation, lower-income (FLI) students held a conference at Princeton University February 15-17 attended by more than 300 students from 34 colleges and universities, all seeking to promote the theme “From Moment to Movement: Capitalizing on Our FLI Experiences to Become Agents of Change in Our Communities.”  (Photo courtesy of Princeton University, Office of Communications, Fotobuddy Photography, 2019)

By Donald Gilpin

More than 300 students from 34 colleges and universities attended the fifth annual 1vyG Conference on the Princeton University campus February 15-17 to promote progress and change in how selective universities support lower-income and first-generation college students.

Organized by first-generation, low-income (FLI) Princeton students with the theme “From Moment to Movement: Capitalizing on our FLI Experiences to Become Agents of Change in Our Communities,” the conference was “a safe space for FLI students to meet each other, to connect with and empower each other, to have fun, and to think about changes we want to bring back to our communities,” according to Princeton sophomore and conference co-chair Anna Macknick. 

A second conference, overlapping with the first, took place at Princeton on February 17-19, bringing together administrators, faculty, and staff from 40 institutions who work with FLI students. 

“One of the primary purposes of this convening is to build community so that we might better share best practices and, ultimately, enhance the experience of the first-gen, lower-income students on our campuses,” said Khristina Gonzalez, Princeton’s associate dean and director of programs for access and inclusion, as quoted in a University Communications Office press release. “We want to promote not just access, but [student] success. This is not a one-off event. This is not simply a moment, but indeed a movement.”

The three-day student conference included panel discussions, workshops, and networking events that examined FLI identities on campuses, in hometowns, and in professional lives.

Student leaders, the press release stated, said they hoped the conference would show FLI students how much their opinions matter and also promote a strong community among the widely diverse group. Student organizers called for new ideas that students could take back to their home campuses to promote inclusivity and student empowerment.

“Voices of FLI students are often unheard or pushed to the wayside,” said Princeton sophomore Kiki Gilbert, one of the conference organizers.

Emphasizing the goal of ensuring equitable access to selective colleges and universities, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber welcomed the FLI students in an address in the University Chapel.

“I am delighted by the promise, the energy, and excitement that you bring together,” he said. “I am thrilled by the prospect of the contributions that you will make, the changes that you will bring to our campuses and,more importantly, to the society and the world that needs your talent and your leadership.”

In a keynote conversation with Aspen Institute President and CEO Daniel R. Porterfield later in the conference, Eisgruber noted that diversity is essential to the mission of higher education.

“We are not going to be excellent in any aspect of our mission —in molecular biology, or music, or engineering, or any kind of leadership we want our graduates to show — unless we are bringing together talent from every sector of society,” he said. 

At Princeton, from the class of 2008 to the class of 2020, the percentage of students eligible for federal Pell Grants (one criterion indicating lower income families) tripled from 7 percent to 21 percent. Princeton has also reinstituted a transfer admission program aimed at low-income students, community college students, and U.S. military veterans.

In the keynote discussion “Looking Back, Reaching Forward,” participants cited a wide range of challenges ahead for FLI students, including mental health, food insecurity, the cost of books, self-doubt, avoiding burnout, not knowing how to seek help, and lack of mentors.