Hidden Behind the Statistic

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

2017 FSY Students

To be relegated to a statistic is unsettling: One of 1,578 enrolled first-years at Yale. Existing within the 53 percent of first-years receiving need-based financial aid.

20 percent of us are Pell Grant recipients at an institution where this amount of Pell Grant recipients is double what it was five years ago. The Pell Grant is a government subsidy paid to an undergraduate institution of the student’s choice to help cover their cost of attendance, and the general rule for qualification is demonstrating “financial need.” The maximum amount awarded by the Pell Grant — received only if your Estimated Family Contribution equals zero — is $6,095, which is only 12% of Yale’s $53,430 tuition.

I’m part of the 18 percent of Yale College students who are the first in our families to attend a four-year college. This is the largest percentage of first-generation college students that Yale has accepted onto campus in its history — 284 students creating this new legacy for their families. I’m one of 284 students fumbling through this massive, life-changing experience with no elder guidance. Some of us can’t even talk to our parents about college because explaining all of the intricacies we’ve had to teach ourselves is exhausting — and that’s before we even get to describing college as an experience in itself.

The numbers alone do not do justice to our experiences. Living in a low-income household goes beyond such simplistic terms as “Pell Grant” or “financial aid.” Yet institutions seem to regard us in those terms.

For the past six years, the Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions has been nominating a batch of incoming first-years for a program called First-Year Scholars at Yale (FSY). Students qualify for nomination through a combination of having low or zero expected family contribution, analysis of the quality of the high school we attended, and having little to no access to college prep resources. We are among the 1,578, and we exist within the 53 percent, the 20 percent, and the 18 percent.

FSY is a five-week program spanning the end of June through July of the summer prior to the fall semester at Yale. As of now, over 120 students are sent a nomination letter for the program, with an anticipated yield of 60 students. In the year of its conception, 33 students attended FSY; the committee wanted to start small before expanding depending on what went well, according to Michael Fitzpatrick, Summer Session and Academic Affairs Associate Director.

FSY was invented a decade ago, but the 2008 Financial Crisis resulted in a significant delay in the program’s realization. It simply wasn’t feasible to give away thousands of dollars per head invited onto campus for a summer program that Yale wasn’t even certain would be a boon to its campus. (Fitzpatrick informed me that the FSY Advisor Committee collected data in cooperation with Yale’s Office of Institutional Research. The data demonstrates students who went through FSY had comparatively higher GPAs, were more likely to take on leadership positions on campus, and are more connected with campus communities than the control group. This data has been presented to the Yale College Dean’s Office and the Office of Development.)

Today, the program is as elusive and as it is desirable to first-generation, low-income (FGLI) pre-frosh at Yale. FSY is like if you took summer camp, boarding school, and the first truly hard class you’ve ever taken and blended it up into an enriching, if sometimes hard to swallow, smoothie that you sip daily for five weeks straight. Also, there’s no air-conditioning.

Yet nominees face a heavy choice: give up their last carefree summer at home to spend five weeks away from their friends and family, or stay home and lose the chance of experiencing five sponsored weeks of Yale.

“In many ways, for FGLI students, beginning college can feel like entering a whole new world,” Fitzpatrick told me. “As a first-generation, low-income college graduate myself… I didn’t really understand why I didn’t always feel at home at my college, and so, it is my great privilege to help students, in any small way I can, to develop strategies for college success and to feel more at home at Yale and New Haven.”

For some people, the choice between “home” and FSY is easy. Escaping a household troubled with the adversities of poverty for the cushioned free room and board offered at Yale is exactly how they’d like to spend their summers. Some, homeless at the end of their senior years — if not prior to that — also find this choice simple to make. In this way, FSY saved my life.

FSY students spend their summers under the tutelage of upperclassmen counselors (alumni of FSY themselves), Deans, and other Yale faculty, many of whom become part of their primary Yale network.

Each person’s experience at Yale is inherently unique, yet many others in my FSY cohort can identify a noticeable difference between being at Yale during FSY versus being at Yale for Yale.

During FSY, everyone was on this level playing field in terms of background. We knew that whoever we met came from a place similar to our own: not in terms of geography, but socioeconomically. This created an atmosphere where we weren’t afraid to speak to each other about who we were, where we came from, and what we had experienced, the good and the bad. We trusted each other with information so sacred, people in our home towns may not even know it all.

However, all of us have shouldered on through periods of immense struggle, usually caused by finances. We all grew up through the disastrous recession, which took more from our families than we could have ever expected. Because of this, many of us feel a financial obligation to our families. At Yale, we must become adults who will be able to give back to our families. For some, that is their sole motivator — yet others struggle to reconcile the desire to provide for their families with the desire to utilize the liberal arts education solely for their own individual growth.

We often don’t think of ourselves as part of a greater whole, a small sliver in a pie chart, one of many sharing the same human experience. It’s once we begin to recognize the shared aspects of our lives that we begin to establish community.

This special body of Yale students on campus is united by virtue of shared perspective. To date, six generations of us exist. We have less in common than not — yet we all share a facet to our identities that makes us simultaneously unique within Yale and utterly typical in the context of the greater world. Our existence on this campus feels like a riddle to be solved.

In the end, the solution is simple: “Yale is ours.”

This mantra has been drilled into us by the alumni who persevered before us, fighting through similar experiences decades ago, by our friends still questing through their undergraduate studies, walking among these halls with us today, and by the students we shared FSY with this summer, who need to be reminded that Yale is for them, too.

Hidden Behind the Statistic was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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