Tufts hosts national conference for first-generation students

About 200 students from across the country came to Tufts over the weekend for the nonprofit Class Action’s fifth annual First Generation College Student Summit, according to Class Action Executive Director Anne Phillips and Associate Dean for Student Success and Advising Robert Mack.

The annual summit was a part of Class Action’s mission to uncover classism and uplift the voices of low-income people in partnership with colleges and universities, according to Phillips. She explained that some schools operate under the assumption that students will always succeed through hard work, thus disregarding the structural obstacles they often face.

“Colleges and universities are definitely middle-class, white normative,” Phillips said. “[Some schools act as though they] have to fix students that don’t come from a middle-class background.”

Mack, who has served on the event’s planning committee in the past, said that he submitted a bid for Tufts to host this year’s Summit after recognizing student excitement for the event.

“As a participant working with the organization on the committee and seeing all the excitement and what the conference has done for other schools, I thought it would be of value to bring that to Tufts,” Mack said.

Mack said that the bid was successful in part due to the university’s ongoing work with and support of first-generation college students through the Office of Student Success and Advising. Bridge to Liberal Arts Success At Tufts (BLAST), the First Generation Student Council and Questbridge Scholars are among the university’s existing programs that assist first-generation Tufts students, according to Mack.

“In this space, we have a dedicated team to support first-gen college students,” Mack said. “The creation of this office definitely shows a sign from the administration of wanting to be thoughtful about first-generation college students and other identities and [about] how we can continue to elevate our support but also elevate who these students are.”

Sophomore Muna Mohamed served as the the summit’s program coordinator and as a liaison between the university and Class Action. As program coordinator, Mohamed’s role involved organizing conference calls, working with Facilities Services, publicizing the event on social media and serving on the planning committee. She said that this year’s planning committee decided on a theme of “Unpacking the Intersections: Navigating Power, Privilege and Pride.”

“With the first-gen identity, there are so many different intersections,” Mohamed said. “You can be first-gen of color, you can be first-gen not of color, you can be first-gen and low-income, not low-income … first-gen doesn’t have a face. [Planning committee members] were debating between a lot, but at the end, we thought, ‘How can we unpack what the intersections are, not just first gen?'”

This year’s conference consisted of several student-led hour-long workshops and break-out sessions such as, “Removing the WORK Out of NetWORKing: Rethinking How We Forge Professional Connections as First Gen Students” and “Resistance Organizing 101: Rallies, Petitions, and Protests,” according to Mohamed.

Mohamed and Mack said that, to continue Tufts’ support of first-generation students after the summit, the university should provide more financial aid and make existing programs more effective. Mack noted that the Office of Student Success and Advising is an important part of the university’s efforts but that improvements to the office can be made.

“I think we can really do a lot more in terms of efficacy, campus awareness, integration of our faculty and staff into first-generation issues and understanding … what our students are doing and how we can develop a bridge between [students and staff],” he said.

Mack believes that students who do not identify as first-generation can help by avoiding making assumptions about other students.

“Think about your own privilege, think about where you are,” Mack said. “I would argue that allies are important, but the most important work you can do is really understand your dynamic, your identities, where you come from and what that means in [a] greater context.”

Phyllis Njoroge, a sophomore, led a workshop at this year’s summit on impostor syndrome, which is a condition of feeling inadequate and undeserving while in college or other high-performing environments. Njoroge agrees that people should be careful not to generalize about first-generation students.

“For me, when I talk to other people about first gen, it’s super important to me that people realize that first-gen is a very large umbrella term so you can’t make assumptions about anyone who is first-gen,” Njoroge said. “Also, realize that everyone’s story is very, very different … you can’t say ‘Well this first-gen person, their experience was this, so your experience should be the same.'”

Meanwhile, Mohamed recommended that first-generation students acknowledge their accomplishments and hard work.

“Give yourself a break sometime,” Mohamed said. “The hardest-working people I know on this campus are first-gen, and I think it’s because we’re used to it … you do the most.”

She added, however, that these students should remember to take care of themselves.

“Just don’t always do the most. But coming from a student that does the most, it’s easier said than done,” Mohamed said. “Take care of your mental health. Self-care is so important, and I know it’s hard to do that.”

UPDATE: A previous version of this article stated that more than 250 people attended the conference. According to Class Action Executive Director Anne Phillips, about 200 people attended, though 250 had initially planned to attend.