penn_first

Founders of PennFirst, a new student group for low-income and first-generation students, gathered outside of their adopted base of operations at the Greenfield Intercultural Center.

Photo: Guyrandy Jean-GIlles

Neither of Wharton senior Megan Humes’ parents has graduated college. Between them, they have collectively applied to only one job. But Humes was an excellent student who grew up in an idyllic middle-class neighborhood and was the first person in nine years to get into Penn from her high school. She was excited to join a community of students who shared her own academic ambitions.

However, she soon realized that, on an elite campus like Penn, being a first-generation college student can be a jarring experience.

While a friend had an internship set up in Turkey by her father, the only job her parents could get her was at the car dealership where her dad worked. In her management class, she encountered students whose parents were CFOs of large corporations, and along Locust Walk, she brushed sleeves with children of doctors, lawyers and politicians.

Inspired by her experience, plus a social impact class about low-income students, last spring Humes and several other first-generation students founded Penn First, a group for low-income and first-generation students.

“There is a stigma on campus with saying you are a low-income or first-generation student, but we want Penn First to be a safe space,” College senior and co-founder Sam Trinh said.

College senior Cheyenne Rogers, another co-founder, said the club plans to create a mentorship program where entering freshmen can speak about their concerns with upperclassmen. Her parents had never attended college and didn’t come to her high school parent-teacher conferences because they were intimidated by the institutional formalities. During her freshman year at Penn, she felt ashamed to ask for help when she began struggling in her economics and calculus classes.

“I didn’t want to admit that I was this poor girl who was failing her classes and couldn’t talk to her parents,” Rogers said. “Looking back at it, I just wish I could have had somebody that I could have talked to that really got it.”

College sophomore and co-founder Collin Loughead said that the club will plan social events on campus and affordable trips into the city.

“Penn is a prestigious institution, and a lot of Penn students have expensive hobbies, so we want to show them something you can do on campus that’s free,” Loughead said.

Penn First also has plans at the administration level. Wharton and Engineering senior Jackie Chow said they are working with Dean of Admissions Erica Furda in order to reach out to incoming first-generation freshmen. The founders also want to connect club members with first-generation alumni and faculty members.

“We want them to see people that are successful in their professions, so members can be like, ‘I can make it too,’” Rogers said. “Amy Gutmann herself is actually a first-generation college student.”

However, the founders of Penn First don’t believe that the difficulties first-generation and low-income students face is just a conversation between their group and the administration.

“This is really a schoolwide movement,” Chow said. “We’re just the vehicle for the change.”

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