How is the University supporting FLI students?

By RUDY MALCOM | November 7, 2019

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COURTESY OF FELICIA PETTERWAY

First-generation and limited-income students reflect on their experiences at Hopkins so far ahead of the FLI Network’s celebration of National First-Generation College Student Day on Friday, Nov. 8.

“Unfortunately, I cannot say that during my time at Hopkins I have felt supported as a [First-Generation, Limited-Income (FLI)] student by the University as a whole. Over time, the University has started to recognize the struggles that FLI students face, but it has been a slow process to correct these issues.”

These are the words of senior Felicia Petterway, student representative of the FLI Network. 

Launched during the summer of 2018, the Network is comprised of students, staff and faculty. Its purpose is to promote solidarity and belonging among students who are from low-income families or who are the first in their family to attend college. The Network will host National First-Generation College Student Day this Friday, Nov 8.

Last November, class of 1964 alum and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $1.8 billion to Hopkins, allowing the University to permanently conduct need-blind admissions for American students, meaning that family income is no longer considered in the admissions process. 

In light of Bloomberg’s historic donation, University President Ronald J. Daniels shared his goal for 20 percent of the student body to be eligible for federal Pell Grants, which support students from low-income families, by 2023. He also hoped to recruit more FLI students.

According to Executive Director for Student Success Kelly Barry, 19 percent of freshmen are Pell-eligible. Currently, 21.4 percent of undergraduates are FLI, whereas 18.3 percent were last fall. Since then, the percentages of first-generation and limited-income students increased from 9.53 to 11.3 and from 13.8 to 16.4, respectively. In May, the Hub incorrectly reported that 47.8 percent of undergraduates were limited-income and 24.4 percent were first-generation. According to Barry, these numbers referred to percentages of FLI students, not undergraduates overall.

Barry and Andy Wilson, dean of academic & student services, wrote in an email to The News-Letter that they are taking a more concerted approach to supporting FLI students this semester.

“Our FLI Network has expanded significantly this semester to enhance offerings for students,” they wrote.

Petterway explained that Bloomberg’s gift enabled the network to found the inaugural Pre-Orientation program specifically for FLI students this August. 

Before participating in this program, freshman Amara Gammon, the daughter of Jamaican and Filipino immigrants, worried that she had been accepted by Hopkins in order to fill a quota.

“The whole time after my decision came out, I was dreading coming to Hopkins. I was like, ‘I’m a first-generation student, I’m not that well off financially, I’m mixed.’ I felt like I was just checking off boxes, but when we got to the impostor syndrome talk, I became more than just a number,” she said. “We’re all here for a reason.”

Impostor Syndrome

Hop-In provides about 40 new FLI students each year with mentoring, academic support and financial assistance. Vice Provost for Student Health and Well-Being Kevin Shollenberger and Irene Ferguson, director of student enrichment programs at the Center for Student Success (CSS), launched Hop-In in 2015. 

In addition, since 2001, the Johns Hopkins Underrepresented in Medical Professions (JUMP) Program has aimed to support students from underrepresented populations, including FLI students, who are pursuing health careers.

Senior Sean Stielow, who participated in JUMP, recalled doubting whether he belonged at Hopkins during his freshman year. 

Although he shared these feelings with his JUMP mentor, Stielow wishes that he could have anticipated them sooner. 

“I wish impostor syndrome was addressed more,” he said. “I wish I knew coming onto this campus, ‘This is something that people experience; here’s what you should do if you feel this way.’”

Freshman Jashandeep Lobana, however, noted that he learned about impostor syndrome in August during Pre-Orientation. 

“Every time I take an exam, I remind myself that I’m here because I belong. Yes, I’m a FLI student, but that means I have gone through struggles beforehand. I should be proud that I’m here,” he said.

Freshman Mason Gareis said that he values the friendships he made during the program.

“Every time I’m having a little identity crisis, I just think back to them,” he said. “When you’re dealing with FLI, you’re presented with a lot of challenges on your own… It’s nice to know that there’s a support system, that you aren’t alone, that other people are going through the exact same thing.”

Junior Zainab Jimoh recounted how her JUMP mentor, an upperclassman, encouraged her not to transfer by informing her that she had also experienced difficulties adjusting to academics at Hopkins.

“If I didn’t have my mentor from JUMP, I honestly don’t know if I’d still be at Hopkins,” she said. “When I came here, it was a bit of a shock. I was like, ‘Dang, there really is a big difference in the amount of preparation I have versus everybody else.’”

Senior Cyndy Vasquez, who also considered transferring, mentioned how her Hop-In advisor recommended she make use of resources such as Peer-Led Team Learning (PILOT) sessions and the Learning Den, which provides tutoring for undergraduates. According to Barry and Wilson, Bloomberg’s gift has increased the number of PILOT sessions this year. 

Petterway also benefited from participating in Hop-In, which allowed her to form relationships with professors before the fall semester had begun.

“Hop-In provided me with a close-knit family and shared the endless resources that Hopkins has to support their students,” she said.

Sophomore Elizabeth Aguirre expressed concerns about these resources in an email to The News-Letter

“FLI students shouldn’t have to be exclusively in Hop-In or JUMP to know what they have available to them. Every year, more and more FLI students are admitted, and this needs to be addressed,” she wrote.

The University plans to significantly increase the number of FLI students by 2024. According to Wilson and Barry, Bloomberg’s donation will permit JUMP and Hop-In to expand in the future.

Finances

Many students reported that Hopkins offered them better financial aid than any other universities to which they applied. However, some students highlighted the need for further assistance.

As an underclassman, senior Sean Stielow worked between 30 and 40 hours per week at multiple jobs, which he said adversely affected his mental health.

“When I was a freshman and a sophomore, finances were always in my mind. I was always thinking, ‘If I’m studying now, I’m not at work, I’m not making money,” he said. “Before Bloomberg’s gift, I don’t think the University did the best job recognizing and supporting FLI students.”

Junior Adriana Pereira echoed Stielow’s sentiments. This fall, Hopkins began eliminating student loans from financial aid packages, instead replacing them with scholarships that do not need to be repaid.

“Before there was always this question of ‘Well, I’m getting aid, but I know that at some point I’m going to have to pay ‘x’ amount of money, and I’m not really sure where I’m going to pull that out from,’” she said. “I do worry a lot less.”

Stielow added that after his mother lost her job, Ferguson and Michelle Rodriguez, an assistant director in the Office of Student Success, connected him with a case manager who helped him obtain additional aid.

Petterway commended the efforts of Ferguson and Shakeyla Mitchell, a case manager for the Office of the Dean of Student Life. 

“Both of these women have fought tirelessly to support me,” she said.

However, Petterway added that her aid was completely rescinded for this academic year.

“I have exhausted all possible options to pay tuition, and still will not receive aid from the University. This has caused extreme anxiety and stress, especially given the fact that this is my final year, and this is impacting my ability to graduate on time,” she said.

She called on Hopkins to expand its definition of a limited-income student to include students like herself who are ineligible for Pell Grants. 

“Just because I don’t fit the University’s strict definition of a FLI student doesn’t mean I don’t deserve support,” she said. “The University must do better.”

Stielow argued that financial aid is not enough to cover off-campus expenses beyond the cost of rent. 

“You have to think about how long you keep the lights on to save electricity, how long your showers are,” he said. 

Senior Cyndy Vasquez explained that she became a residential advisor in part to avoid inflicting additional expenses on her family.

“While I’m at Hopkins, my parents definitely limit themselves. They don’t go out to eat, they don’t do things, because every extra penny that they have comes to me,” she said.

She criticized holds on her Student Information Services (SIS) account when she is unable to make tuition payments on time, which prevent her from adding and dropping courses. 

However, staff at the Center for Student Success (CSS) and her Hop-In advisor, she said, usually can figure something out to help her.

“Financial aid could be improved in the sense that they need to let the student come first,” she said. “We’re students here; we need to take classes; and the fact that they put holds on our accounts to prevent us from registering is really detrimental.”

Asking for Help

Junior Adriana Pereira, who moved to the U.S. from Cuba at three months of age, took a leave of absence during the spring of her freshman year. 

“I wouldn’t ask for help my first year, whether it was emotional or academic, and it took me a while to realize that’s definitely a mistake,” she said. “Taking a leave was really hard for me. I felt like going back home meant that I was a failure.”

Senior Sean Stielow explained why FLI students nationwide struggle to seek assistance when they need it.

“A lot of FLI students have had to do things themselves their whole lives, whether it be translating for their parents or filling out financial forms,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the easiest to say, ‘Hey, I need help.’”

Vasquez, the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, shared similar reasoning. 

“Coming to Hopkins, I had that mindset of ‘I’ve been able to solve all my problems by myself so far, so I don’t really see why I’d need to ask for help,’” she said. “But once you do start asking for help, you realize that there are people who are willing to help you.”

Upon returning to Hopkins, Pereira discovered that there were many available resources, which she thinks are now better advertised.

Freshman Mason Gareis believes that this perception is accurate.

“We learned about a lot of FLI-specific resources back at Pre-O; that was the best thing ever,” he said.

This August, Tiffany Llewellyn joined the Counseling Center as FLI Network Coordinator. Herself a FLI student, Llewellyn explained her techniques in an email to The News-Letter

“Embedded in my therapeutic approach is always the emphasis on understanding one’s narrative... and how we make meaning of it,” she wrote. “This is particularly important for FLI individuals whose stories up to this point may have been considered difficult, negative, or others may ascribe shame.” 

Llewellyn noted how FLI students’ experiences have differed across year.

“For the juniors and seniors I have interacted with, they have not been beneficiaries of the major initiative to identify and service FLI students so their experience here has been more challenging,” she wrote. “For incoming students, the hope is that with the increased resources, the experience will be easier.”

After Graduation

Junior Zainab Jimoh voiced concerns about her future after Hopkins.

“How am I going to pay for all these applications, and then even if I do get into med school, how am I going to pay for it?” she said. “Hopkins doesn’t necessarily worry about how students are doing after they graduate. I think their goal is to get people through undergrad and what happens afterward is ‘you’re on your own.’”

Similarly, Petterway argued that there are fewer resources available to older FLI students. 

“While there is a larger support system to support FLI underclassmen, upperclassmen have yet to benefit from these resources and have been left behind,” she said.

Acting Co-Director of the Life Design Lab Alayna Hayes will officially become the inaugural Senior Director of Life Design — Diversity, Equity and Inclusion on Nov. 18. 

Hayes will work closely with FLI students in particular to help them design their life and career goals. 

She conducts research at the School of Education on how first-generation college students can secure professional opportunities. 

Hayes elaborated on her new duties in an email to The News-Letter

“I will lead a new team of life design educators who will be embedded in various non-academic communities to ensure that access to networks, opportunity, and life purpose is systematically possible for all students regardless of background or social capital,” she wrote. 

She encouraged students to seek out their Life Design Educators, who are embedded within every academic department and non-academic communities like Athletics.

Are FLI students supported by their peers?

Freshman Mason Gareis observes that certain Hopkins students mistakenly believe that he comes from the same fortunate background that they do.

“Sometimes people assume that I’m just another privileged, preppy white kid with Daddy’s money. That’s just not who I am,” he said. 

Gareis stated that he must take minimal credits in order to make time for his two jobs and that he cannot eat out frequently with friends.

“I don’t have money to go to Chipotle every night. I have a meal plan and I’m going to use it because I pay for that meal plan, and I need to pay for tuition,” he said. “Some people just don’t have that mindset because they never had those limitations on them.”

Freshman Isaac Diaz often encounters this among his peers.

“They grew up around other people that didn’t worry about money, so it’s their instinct to assume that everyone has the same financial status,” he said.

He wishes that non-FLI students would instead ask him questions about his upbringing.

Junior Zainab Jimoh encouraged students to understand the value of free laundry, which SGA started providing for on-campus residents in September. 

Freshman Lexi Jaramillo thinks about being FLI only when peers make references to their wealth — or when she has to explain to them that during breaks, she cannot travel but must find a job. She has worked every summer since she was 13.

“A friend of mine was like, ‘I thrifted this for $60,’” she said. “I said, ‘That’s insane. I bought these boots for 25 cents.”

Visibility

In February 2017, Petterway attended the 1vyG Conference, the largest conference for FLI students in the world. This marked the University’s first invitation to the conference. That spring, Petterway helped staff from the Center for Student Success (CSS) start the FLI Network, which officially launched in the summer of 2018.

Afterward, Petterway created “I’m First,” the student organization associated with the Network, of which she is currently president. 

In September 2018, Ferguson spearheaded the “I’m First” campaign, providing FLI staff and faculty with “I’m First” decals. The FLI network also provides a directory of staff and faculty who are FLI graduates and allies. 

Senior Cyndy Vasquez stressed the impact of these initiatives, noting that she previously felt isolated on campus.

“Before, not a lot of people wanted to say they were first-gen or limited-income because there is a stigma that comes with it,” she said. “It’s a lot more visible on campus now.” 

According to freshman Jashandeep Lobana, the Network has helped redefine how he views being FLI.

“I realize being FLI is more of a community than something you should be afraid of saying you are,” he said. “It’s what’s keeping me here. It allows me to keep going forward.”

Petterway hopes to further increase visibility for FLI students on campus by collaborating with various offices on campus to enhance their services. 

“A more collective understanding of the FLI experience is necessary at the University level to make more systematic changes,” she said. “For example, there have been a couple classes that I’ve been unable to take because the required textbooks were out of my price range.”

Kesta Medoit, program coordinator for student enrichment programs at the CSS, described the CSS’s plans to continue collaborating with different offices on campus in an email to The News-Letter.

“Since the FLI community of practitioners is still growing, we are still considering additional ways to partner with campus partners,” she wrote. 

Dean of Academic and Student Services Andy Wilson and Executive Director for Student Success Kelly Barry shared their vision for the future in an email to The News-Letter

“The broad goal of the FLI Initiative is to support all FLI students at the level they need. From one semester to the next, we get closer to that goal,” they wrote. “At the same time, [our] job is to see the gaps in support and ask what barriers we’re putting in the way of FLI students and their families.” 

Freshman Amara Gammon argued that though she lacks the resources of college-educated parents, being FLI is not an obstacle to her success.

Jimoh echoed Gammon’s sentiments.

“Even though I’m a FLI student, I know that I’ll still be able to be successful in life,” Jimoh said. “It might be harder; I might have to take a different route, but I know that at the end of the day, I’ll still be able to come out on top.”

The Office of Student Financial Services could not respond to comment by press time.

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