3 Things to Keep In Mind as a Non-First Gen or Low-Income Student Leader

Participants at the Class Action 2014 1st-Gen Summit

Participants at the Class Action 2014 1st-Gen Summit

I dedicated the last two weeks this past summer to being a student leader for the incoming class of 2019. I’m an academic peer tutor, meaning that I serve as a residence-hall-based resource who fosters academic and personal well-being in the hall.

As a low-income, first gen college student, I noticed that the standard summer training lacked any discussion of socioeconomic diversity. Many incoming first-year students are low-income, first gen, or both.

As a student leader, it is important for you to recognize their specific needs. But this can be difficult if you don’t share their background!

As we go forth into the 2015-2016 academic year, and delve deeper into our roles as student leaders, I would like help you realize three (3) important things to keep in mind as a mentor to low-income and first gen first years:

1)  Not all students come to college with the same tools.

It can be easy to laugh off the students who bombard you with seemingly pointless questions. After all, what kind of first year worries about distribution requirements or midterms before they’ve even signed up for classes? Imagine, though, embarking on your own college journey without knowing the word “syllabus” or being able to ask your parents for course advice.

This is a reality for first gen students! On the other hand, some first gen students will ask no questions and not seek help until it seems too late. As student leaders, it is our responsibility from the beginning to take student concerns seriously and build trust with our mentees.

2) Avoid classist microaggressions.

Naturally, you want your first years to bond. It’s all too tempting to plan dinner outings or day trips. These can alienate first years by pressuring them to spend disposable income they don’t have, or by causing them to miss out altogether.

“Take advantage of your campus resources to plan accessible hangouts: free buses/transportation, free museum admission, or even funds designated specifically for student leader events.”

Remember: Cost is relative. Ten dollars can be “cheap” to one mentee who receives an allowance from their parents, while representing an hour’s work to another mentee. Take advantage of your campus resources to plan accessible hangouts: free buses/transportation, free museum admission, or even funds designated specifically for student leader events.

Be sensitive to class differences when designing ice-breakers. A question like, What is your favorite vacation spot? can be easily rephrased as, What is your favorite way to relax? Your low-income mentees could feel isolated by being the only person in the circle who considers a day trip to the beach a vacation, while their peers talk about expensive international travels.

Additionally, it just makes for better conversation to focus on students’ interests rather than the things they own. To find someone else who also enjoys roller-skating is a more meaningful bonding experience than finding someone who’s been to the same beach resort as you.

3) Your first years are here to learn, not to educate.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a socially conscious individual who wants to make their campus a more inclusive place. This is awesome. I appreciate your solidarity! It’s important to note, though, that your first years’ life experiences are not your textbook.

First years are in a vulnerable place, and putting them on the spot to explain themselves and their experiences isn’t acceptable. What you should do is listen.

Every low-income and/or first gen student is different. Some might share much of their life with you, while others will choose to keep that information to themselves. In either case, all you can do is listen and suggest campus resources specific to low-income and first gen students. Ask your supervisor or other student leaders for more information regarding what these resources look like at your school.


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