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Photo from Richard Le 

While the University has shifted its focus toward improving the first-generation low-income experiences at the undergraduate level recently, the FGLI community is working toward achieving the same level of recognition for graduate students. Penn First Graduate Association’s first-ever event this month helped springboard these goals into action.

In collaboration with the First Generation Professional Student Society, PFGA hosted a mixer in the Dental School Atrium on Nov. 13. The Professional Student Society was established last April and is primarily based in the Dental School, while PFGA formed this semester and aims to serve all FGLI graduate students. 

“Penn First among the undergrads is gaining a lot of momentum, they have large membership, lots of institutional support, we think that’s amazing and want to have that same support for FGLI graduate students," PFGA co-founder and candidate for a master's degree in education Jade Parker said. "So far a lot of resources have been undergraduate-focused and we’d like it to be more equally spread.” 

The networking event helped graduate students meet peers outside of their academic programs and schools, a connection that can be difficult to establish on a normal basis, PFGA and FGP leaders said.

“I wanted to see new people in different programs,” first-year Design student Cokie Nanka said at the event. “This is reaffirming because when I go to other school it’s not as diverse. I just like knowing there’s more of us around here.”

Dental student Kristen Leong, the founder of the First Generation Professional Student Society, encouraged members to share their experiences of being a FGLI student, whether those be everyday problems or their favorite cheap eats on campus. 

“It feels like of the many different aspects of diversity there are, the one thing that’s missing is being a first-generation college student. There’s a cultural difference for some students when you’re first generation, so I’m enjoying being here in this newly celebrated nook of diversity,” said second-year GSE Ph.D. student Laronnda Thompson, who serves as Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Equity and Access chair.

Photo from Richard Le 

Students at the event said the mixer was different from typical networking events, both professional and social, where they often feel alienated. This feeling also extends to undergraduate FGLI students, who have said their background affects their experiences with on-campus recruiting.

“Networking is about feeling at ease, and this space gives everyone the opportunity to feel at ease,” said GAPSA President and Sociology Ph.D. candidate Haley Pilgrim, who was at the event. “What you see with those undergrads in OCR is that they’re not feeling at ease because of that difference in cultural capital.”

Thompson said this divide in cultural capital became clear while planning for a separate event. When asking for the hor d'oeuvres to be continuously served, she said she felt others discounted her for not knowing the proper term was “butlered hor d’oeuvres.”

It’s these differences in social networks that motivated Leong to start the Professional Society, which will collaborate with PFGA much more often in the future, she said.

“I’m proud of the way we can come together. I’ll put it out there that I was feeling alone, I felt like I didn’t have support, and I’m really proud that my first gen students answered that call,” she said as she started to cry. “And we’re all standing here together now.”

PFGA said it plans to hold personal financing workshops next semester and, in the long term, may be formally placed under the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Leadership Council of GAPSA.

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