FIRST Center creates video to highlight first-generation students’ classroom experiences

Robert Mack, Associate Dean for Student Success and Advising, poses for a portrait shot outside his office on May 1st, 2018 Vintus Okonkwo / The Tufts Daily

The FIRST Resource Center, which supports first-generation, low-income and undocumented students at Tufts, is currently developing a video project to raise awareness of challenges for first-generation and low-income students in the classroom, according to Rob Mack, Tufts’ associate provost and chief diversity officer, and Margot Cardamone, associate director for student success and advising. Mack and Cardamone started the project last summer.

The project extends from the recent establishment of the FIRST Center and its mission to raise awareness, visibility and pride for first-generation and low-income students, according to Mack and Cardamone.

According to Mack, the video consists of a series of student and faculty interviews. First-generation, low-income students interviewed in the video share challenges they experience in the classroom, and faculty and staff provide thoughts and ideas for addressing these challenges.

Mack explained that the video will be an educational tool.

“The video and interviews are a way to create an educational opportunity for others who are not familiar with the needs of first-generation, low-income students,” Mack said in a phone interview with the Daily.

According to Cardamone, students interviewed for the video have raised concerns about expenses and ability to attend office hours. She said one of the most common concerns voiced is the student’s ability to attend extra-credit opportunities that require travel, a certain identification card or additional expense.

Cardamone said these can be barriers for a student who is undocumented or low-income.

“A lot of these opportunities require paying for something, like attending a museum, a play or visiting somewhere off campus that requires travel,” Cardamone said in a phone interview with the Daily. “Some of these things are not accessible to all of our students due to immigration status, class and ability to travel.”

Cardamone said that sometimes a student’s work schedule conflicts with attending extra-credit events and office hours. She notes that some students receiving financial aid work multiple jobs, and that this can be a barrier to attending extra-credit events or office hours. Cardamone hopes the video will urge professors to think more of the accessibility of the out-of-class activities they offer.

Steven Cohen, a senior lecturer in the education department, says there is little conversation among faculty about addressing first-generation and low-income concerns, but he sees the video project as a way to begin a conversation. He noted that faculty might fail to address the effects of their decisions on all of their students.

“[Faculty neglect] may have adverse effects on students who have lives outside the classroom that are more challenging,” Cohen said.

To Cohen, the project will encourage professors, himself included, to be more mindful of first-generation, low-income students.

As an educator, Cohen said he considers content and teaching style when preparing a course but sometimes overlooks the individuality and needs of each student, especially with larger classes.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do is to never use an expensive textbook in class,” Cohen said.

Cohen also said he tries to use books that can be found either used or in paperback, which are often cheaper compared to purchasing new or hardcover textbooks. In addition, the most recent edition of a book, which is usually more expensive, is often not required in his classroom.

According to Cohen, differences in size and content of classes may affect the options an educator has to meet the needs of first-generation and low-income students. He notes that classes that are larger or more technical might require all students to have the new, updated textbooks.

For Rosain Ozonsi, a first-generation sophomore majoring in psychology for whom purchasing access codes and textbooks is a major financial decision each semester, the project addresses many of her concerns. To her, the video reaffirms her place on campus, as it covers everything from expenses to feeling comfortable in the classroom.

Ozonsi hopes the video will make her feel more comfortable in the classroom and encourage professors to be more mindful of student circumstances when having interactions.

When attending some of her classes, Ozonsi often feels like she must “catch up” with the rest of peers to understand the material.

“In biology, one thing I do talk about with my peers a lot is there seems to be a lot of pre-information required going into it, and how it seems like the general population knows it already,” Ozonsi said in a phone interview with the Daily.

Though Ozonsi finds herself intimidated by these situations, she also finds motivation and solace in her first-generation and low-income communities.

“We have little study groups and we work through things together,” Ozonsi said of her first-generation, low-income peers.

Sophomore Sung-Min Kim hopes to watch the finished video, because she thinks the project can improve students’ experience on campus. She believes the project is an important step in addressing challenges in the classroom and making it a more welcoming space.

“It’s important for students, especially those who are low-income, to know they are being considered,” Kim said.

Mack said the Office of Student Success and Advising (OSSA) will continue conducting interviews and editing the video during the spring semester. OSSA plans to release the video, which Mack says will be less than 10 minutes long, before the 2019 fall semester.

According to Mack, how OSSA will distribute the video and who will see it is still being discussed.

“It depends on what the final tape looks like. If we think that people will receive it well and it’s strong enough on its own, we may post it on our website, but if not, we may need someone to help facilitate dialogue while the video is being watched,” Mack said. “We want to be responsible for it.”