First-Generation, Low-Income Students Need More Support

Nick Nguyen ’22

It is 8:00 PM and my mom has not come home yet. I decide to start dinner while guiding my brother through his homework; my homework is not done yet. I know that it will be a late night, most likely ending at 2 AM. 

I am going to be exhausted tomorrow morning when I go to school at 7:35 AM. After my mom comes home and we eat our late dinner, my brother jumps into bed, waiting for me to tuck him in. I walk into his room, kiss him on the forehead, and walk out. This is what a typical night looks like.

Coming from a low-income and single-parent family, I had many responsibilities in high school, oftentimes sacrificing my own well-being for my loved ones. I worked twenty hours on the weekends to earn gas money and a little spending money. 

When it was time to apply to college, I knew that we couldn’t afford an “elite education.” I went into the college application process thinking I would stay home and go to Salisbury, Maryland’s community college, giving up my dream school at the time, Columbia University.

If it wasn’t for my biology teacher, I would not be here at Davidson because she led me to liberal arts colleges and through the ins and outs of financial aid. 

I went to a high-poverty and minority-majority school, where over half of the students were on the Free and Reduced Meals program, including myself. My school was so focused on pumping out high school graduates that most faculty were unaware of colleges like Davidson and the amount of money they could offer. 

The Davidson Trust—a pool of money that allows the school to bring in students from low socioeconomic backgrounds because the scholarships meet 100 percent of demonstrated need—makes many people’s education here possible.

When I found out I got into Davidson and was a finalist for a full-tuition merit scholarship, I cried so much. Not because I got into a “Top 10 Liberal Arts College,” but because I knew that I had saved my parents from a debilitating financial burden. 

Because I had to interview for the scholarship, my mom and I drove all the way to Davidson. We were running late so I had to change clothes in the car. I put on my Old Navy khakis and my button-down shirt from Marshall’s and rushed into the Admissions Office. When I walked in, I saw other finalists wearing elegant dresses and refined three-piece suits; I looked down to what I was wearing, and I knew that I was at a place that wasn’t made for me.

I put on a smile and introduced myself to the adults and other finalists. During small talk with the other prospective students, our parents’ education came up; my stomach immediately dropped. “Yale University” and “Duke Medical School” were some of the schools tossed around. All of a sudden, it was my turn. I muttered, “My parents didn’t go to college.” Everyone shrugged it off while I dwelled on it. The last thing I wanted to feel was shame because of my background. I was out of my element when I came to Davidson, knowing that not many people like me attended places like this school.

Mine is one of the many diverse experiences of FLI (First-Generation and/or Low-Income) students at Davidson College; however, I believe that my experience at Davidson—before I even committed—can represent the atmosphere and culture on campus. 

There are many struggles and obstacles that come with being FLI. From not being able to see your family for Thanksgiving to not being able to pay for the school’s health insurance, being FLI can be extremely difficult. Pile that on top of not knowing how to study for college-level courses or how to pick the right classes, the first year is always the most challenging for FLI students. 

Since this label is not a physical identifier, there is this assumption that all students can pay for this or know how to do that. Oftentimes being FLI intersects with many other identities, such as race and gender. Thus, the lack of awareness of FLI students on campus erases a marginalized group from the small margins here at Davidson.

The Davidson QuestBridge Chapter is the only organization that supports FLI students on campus. QuestBridge is a prominent community-based organization that connects low-income, high achieving students to their dream schools by offering them full-ride scholarships. 

Davidson QuestBridge students should not be expected to pay for health insurance, yet many of them were billed $2,295 for mandatory health insurance if they didn’t have a plan already. How can students who cannot afford for college be expected to pay for health insurance that should be a part of the financial aid package? Instances like this stem from an unawareness of FLI students on campus and what it means to be FLI.

Again, FLI students would not be here if it wasn’t for the Davidson Trust and the many other scholarships from gracious donors. However, there is a difference between bringing socioeconomic diversity and having an inclusive campus environment. Diversity is all a numbers game. 

Without an emphasis on inclusion and awareness, FLI students will never be fully supported. The first step is to create awareness among the student population and Davidson bureaucracy. 

We have to get rid of the notion that everyone comes from the same socioeconomic background or that everyone’s families are college-educated. The student population is a lot more heterogeneous than people think. By first acknowledging the existence of FLI students on campus, we can advocate for more resources for disadvantaged students, like a summer bridge program that eases the transition to college or specialized career services for FLI students. By doing this, FLI students would be able to thrive, ultimately softening the burdens that come with this identity.

Nick Nguyen ’22 is undeclared from Salisbury, Maryland. Contact him at ninguyen@davidson.edu.

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