The First-Generation Student Activists Tearing Down College Classism

Sposato grew up believing two things: Attending college was nonnegotiable, and she’d better work her ass off in high school because she needed a full ride. Her mother had high expectations, but Sposato was also eager to get out of Passaic — a place you weren’t expected to leave.

“The teachers did the best they could with the resources they were given,” she said. “But they weren’t overflowing with plenty. High school didn’t feel like a space based on academics but one based on discipline.” She recalled a monthslong spate of bomb threats left in her high school’s bathrooms. After that, students had to request a key to access them. “It felt so dehumanizing to not be able to use the bathroom without being watched,” she said.

Sposato didn’t know much about the Ivy League except that their schools were need-blind (she learned this from Google) and had “a name brand.” She was skeptical about her prospects, even with her stellar academic record. When she was widely admitted, she thought her problems were solved. “I got into college, and it was golden keys, Bill Gates, I’m America’s next top intellectual, it was all I needed,” she said. “And then… it wasn’t.”

Sposato’s decision to join FLIP and take up the mantle of “poor and proud” wasn’t unique to her or Columbia.

Sposato’s high school teachers warned her that she was in for a shock. “I was told you’ll have to be quiet and hide yourself if you want to survive without conflict.” She didn’t know whether to believe them. But it wasn’t long before she had her answer. In August of 2017, she arrived early to campus for a preorientation program about social justice. One day, when the group was asked to share their biases, she confessed to feeling skeptical when wealthy people talked about their problems.

“I know it’s something I need to unpack,” she told the group. In response, the facilitator accused her of “wealth shaming.” Sposato was taken aback. She’d been honest about her feelings, had tried to take responsibility for them, and was shot down. “I was coming in and trying to facilitate dialogue about something I care about, but I had to be pointed out as someone who was wrong,” she said.

Sposato had barely arrived at Columbia as a freshman in 2017 when she realized the value of joining FLIP, the First Generation Low Income Partnership.

This wasn’t surprising given the general lack of awareness about class on campus: how money — or the absence of it — affected what activities and social events you could afford, where and what you ate, and even how much time you had to study. Invisible barriers to entry were everywhere, but if you pointed them out, people got defensive. Things might have been different had Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist vision successfully rallied the country the previous year or had the coronavirus already laid bare the gaping class divisions simmering just below the surface of virtually every American institution. But as things stood in the late summer of 2017, calling socioeconomic status a “hot button” issue, like sexual orientation or race, clearly perplexed (and offended) a lot of affluent progressives.

But Sposato’s decision to join FLIP and take up the mantle of “poor and proud” wasn’t unique to her or Columbia. By 2017, first-generation, low-income student activism and advocacy was gaining nationwide traction. Known as “FLI” for short, it has developed into a class-based movement that crosses racial, ethnic, and geographic lines. It’s reminiscent of the multicultural movement of the 1990s that created identity-based campus centers, student organizations, and new curricula. Now, schools are opening FLI residence halls, launching FLI orientations, and hiring deans to oversee the FLI experience.

“Around 2015, something just opened up,” said Sarah Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-generation Student Success, another national nonprofit. “We now have more institutions defining, tracking, and collecting information on first-gen students. And we’re seeing students understanding their first-gen identity much sooner in life, in middle school and high school. Before many students wouldn’t identify as first-gen for fear it would be held against them. Now they want to have pride.”

Being FLI “has given me so many opportunities,” Sposato said. “It allowed me to find my voice with an identity I’ve been embarrassed about my whole life.”

According to La’Tonya Rease Miles, executive director of the First Year Experience at UCLA, “It’s the recognition that being first-generation is also a social identity.” That’s true for large numbers of FLI students, most of whom aren’t activists. For them, being FLI or first-gen is both a mark of accomplishment and a way to show school spirit. “First-gen swag is a big thing right now and part of the brand of the campus,” Rease Miles said. “Three years ago, you wouldn’t have found much, but now it’s the hot trend.”

Rease Miles runs Empowering First-Generation College Students, a 4,100-member Facebook group that supports first-gen students at every type of institution, from community colleges to the Ivy League. FLIP National, which now has 18 chapters, is one of many new groups agitating administrations to take class divisions seriously. And there are at least three annual conferences organized by current and former FLI students from various colleges. These groups have broad, overlapping mandates — from community building to administrative policy change — but generally aim to serve all students who self-identify as FLI. In the absence of tangible assistance, they even provide direct goods and services.

At Columbia, FLIP created a textbook lending library for FLI students, hosts an annual coat drive, and partners with the campus food pantry. The chapter is locked in a seemingly endless struggle with campus food services to find an efficient but not degrading way for students to share extra meal swipes with their peers in need. And they are constantly pressing the administration to reevaluate the annual student responsibility, which forces many low-income students to take menial summer jobs instead of coveted but unpaid internships.

Sposato understands these challenges acutely. She’d turned down a full ride plus an annual stipend from Harvard because the four-hour bus ride was too far from her mother, who spoke limited English and sometimes needed her help. She called Columbia, hoping they would match Harvard’s offer; they agreed on tuition but would only provide a stipend for her freshman year. For the remaining three years, she’d have to find another way to pay for books, living expenses, and the student responsibility and help her mother with the bills. Only later did she realize how much the stipend would have helped. And so, adding the social and cultural challenges of campus life to this real financial pressure, it made sense that Sposato would gravitate toward a community that not only understood her but was fighting for an equal playing field.

“I’m proud of this identity but didn’t want it to be my life,” she said. “But now, what do you all have on me that I haven’t already told you myself? I’m empowered, period. It takes away the vulnerability I thought I was coming in with.”

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